I heard Uncle Jasper’s tractor rattle to life behind the house; every shudder was amplified by the tin roofed shed he stored it. It wasn’t a monster like you’d see at large farming operations around the valley and in the flatlands. No, it was just an old John Deer that Paw-Paw used to putter around the field and haul supplies down to the family garden. The tractor had been part of the house and the land since before I was born, and was the legacy given to my uncle, Jasper, and my paw, Calvin. I suppose it was partly mine now that my paw had passed after coming back from Viet Nam, a man changed my maw would say, and Jasper had no sons of his own.
The garden was as much a legacy as the tractor, and Jasper out of obligation or just a chance to rekindle memories of Paw-Paw worked it religiously every weekend despite putting in a hard week managing a roofing crew. This time of year, the mornings heated up quick, and since the pickings were mostly roots like carrots and potatoes, my uncle would work it only as long as tolerated. That would be close to noon and would give him the afternoon to enjoy some fishing.
If it were up to me, I would probably let the roots grow a little more and go directly to the fishing. Jasper was a man of deep work ethic, something sorely needed to work roofing across three counties under a beating sun with a crew that rather drink a Pabst than lay a sheet of tarpaper. This was the first summer my uncle brought me along, and it wasn’t to lollygag. I had to put in my hours just like the other men, but we discovered quick that I wasn’t cut out for the roof. I was helping down at the big house adjacent to our property that was owned by The Colonel. That’s when I discovered my notable fear of heights, and from then on out I was grounded. I was the gopher and errand boy.
I didn’t look forward to a beer like the other guys, I hadn’t acquired the taste, but I sure did enjoy my weekends. I’d help in the garden if asked, but this weekend Uncle Jasper said I could go to the State Fair with my pal, Easy. We’d made arrangements with The Colonel for a ride and I was waiting on Easy to come skittering down from his house up on the hill. Normally, he’d be down for breakfast before even the first egg was cracked. He sure enjoyed the scrapple. I wasn’t much a fan, but Jasper would get it from one of his roofing suppliers who came down from Pittsburg.
That old tractor puttered around the bend and towards the front of house, and I could see my uncle wave me up. I jumped off the porch and scurried up the hill quick.
“Ray you done good this week. I wanted you to know that, just as hard as the rest of the men. You got your money for working?” I nodded. “Well, here’s another five so you can have a little extra at the Fair.”
My eye grew to saucers at the additional money. I knew that Jasper paid himself last on the jobs, and sometimes there wasn’t a lot left over. “Thank you, thank you,” I said exasperated.
“And don’t let Easy spend it all on RC Cola.”
“I won’t be spending any on him if he don’t show up soon.”
“I noticed that.” Jasper said, looking at his own watch. “You better run and fetch him before The Colonel shows.”
I did as he said, turned tail and ran up the hill. Halfway to the tracks I stopped and yelled back, “Thank you, Jasper.”
Easy lived with his paw in a cabin up the hill, across the tracks that run coal from the mines. The senior Cook was named Everett like his son, but folks called him Buddy, though I rarely ever talked to him and when I did it was ‘Mister Cook.’ While people might call him Buddy to his face, no one I knew really considered him one. He was a drunk, and a mean one at that. Easy said it was due to his back, that his paw had been in an accident in the mines. He’d been on disability ever since.
If you didn’t know where the Cook’s cabin was, it was easy to overlook as the forest around it creeped so close that you couldn’t tell where the forest ended the cabin began. I had only been a few times, but Easy had worn a regular trail down to the tracks and back. He really does like his scrapple in the morning.
As I approached the cabin, I could hear Buddy Cook hollering to the heavens. Or loud enough to shake the trees.
“Gawd dammit, boy! Open the door before I bust it to splinters. Do it now, Junior, or I’m gonna give you a whoopin’ you’d not soon forget.”
It was only just passed eight o’clock, and Easy’s paw sounded like he was already down the bottle. I could hear him pounding on the hard wood of the door as Creedence cranked on the player inside. The harder his paw pounded, the louder the music got.
“Boy…” I heard him give a final warning. The feeling I felt was like the time I was up on The Colonel’s roof. The sky began to spin, and my stomach twisted to knots. Pure fear, but there was something else. I was more afraid for Easy.
Without letting another word thunder out of the elder Cook’s mouth, I shambled across the dilapidated porch and through the unlocked door. Unexpected, Buddy turned with a start.
“What in blazin’ Hell’r you doin’ here, boy?”
I wasn’t sure what to say, but I stood as firm as a fourteen-year-old could — though I suspect fear had ample to do with my rigidity — towards a grown man fueled with liquor and hate. Before I could formulate a response, Creedence cut out, and Easy opened the door, pushing passed his paw. He grabbed my arm and pulled me along out the door.
We were nearly to the tracks before we stopped to catch our breath. That was when I saw Easy straight on, and what Buddy had done to his face.
“Lordy, look’t that.” I was tempted to reach out and touch his eye, but Easy lifted trembling fingers to the purple blossom. He winced.
“That’s some shiner. Did your paw do that?”
Shame washed across his face, and Easy nodded. It wasn’t the first mark I’d seen on Easy, but never right there in your face — well his face.
“Buddy didn’t sleep last night.” He said his father’s name with contempt, “Spent it in his chair drinking beer, and he must have found a bottle of somethin’ else, too. Liquor makes him ‘specially mean. Like stirring up a hornet’s nest.”
Easy touched his blackening eye again, wincing while a tear snaked out.
“He cornered me on my way out. Hit me with his own stinger.” I could see Easy turning red, “I thought I could hop out the window, but the old bastard nailed it shut. The Hell, Ray. I was about to break out the glass when you came riding in on your horse.”
Easy wrapped his arms around me, and gave me a hug. “You saved me, Ray. That’s the honest truth.”
“You’d done the same, Easy.”
“That Jasper ain’t no sumbitch. But we got to watch each other’s back, brother.”
We clasped hands in a shake, and I noticed my watch.
“Oh, shit,” I exclaimed. “We better haul down to The Colonel’s lest we gonna to miss our ride to the Fair.”
And we both cantered down Easy’s trail as fast as our legs could take us.
The Colonel drove an old, green 1949 Ford pickup that looked as good as the day he bought it thirty years ago, or so he claimed. Not a spot of rust or even a chip of paint, and the only variance was a new logo for Texaco. I don’t know if The Colonel served in an actual war, but everyone called him that being a man of stature around valley. He had made his money in the gas station business, owning almost a dozen around southern West Virginia. And now he was a Texaco man, through and through. And the money allowed him to buy the big house a half-mile down the river from my uncle, both properties shared the same sprawling bank that hugged the Greenbrier, and luckily for Easy and me, the same access road. Just as we came across the tracks, here came The Colonel and his green pickup.
The rutted gravel road crunched beneath the braking tires of the Ford, and The Colonel leaned out the already open window. As pristine as the truck looked, it never came with A/C.
“Well, I’d ‘bout given up on you two. You still wantin’ to see the Fair?”
We both shook our heads in agreement, “Sure do, sir.”
With a big grin, and most of his teeth, “Well, you better hop in back so we can be off.”
It took about forty minutes by truck, though it was a bumpy ride to the Fair.
If you have been to a State Fair, and maybe not all State Fairs are the same, you would know that the Fair is one part farming, with farmers showing off their cows, hogs, sheep, and a goat or two. And don’t forget produce of extraordinary size. I had once seen a pumpkin bigger than my Aunt Bertie who hadn’t moved from her recliner in three years. Then there were the crafts. Country artisans who built and made everything from wind chimes, to mail boxes to embroidered quilts. For kids, the animals had a lot of interests, but it was carny side that interest Easy and me.
With the fifteen bucks Uncle Jasper gave me burning a hole in my pocket, I bought us a couple hotdogs each and pops to drink. Easy, missing out on eggs and scrapple this morning, scarfed down his dogs in a couple bite. And I put short order to my own before Easy got any ideas. The sun was already heating up the Fair, and the cool RC colas we held beaded on the glass bottle with perspiration. With the heat, so far, I knew we’d be needing another bottle of pop before the day was done.
“So, what to do first?” Easy asked.
I thumbed behind us, “I don’t know, I saw they had a shootin’ gallery.” I placed a hand on my belly, “And I want to do the tilt-a-whirl, but maybe wait ‘til my food has set a while.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Easy laughed.
We turned ourselves back towards the shooting gallery when I went headfirst into Woodrell Daniels’ chest. He must have had the same idea about hotdogs as his white t-shirt was now a canvas of smashed hotdog and mustard, with a flourish of ketchup. I stepped back wiping the remains from my face, when I acknowledge Woodrell, who was with his brother Donnie Ray.
My brain and my mouth disconnected for a moment and all I could think about is that I ran into “Boner” Daniels. Though, no one was supposed to call him that, and hadn’t since he’d sprung up to the size of an oak. That boy was every coaches dream. But that’s all I could think of when I saw his reddening face, and I’m sure my smirk didn’t help at all. In the moment, I just remember being told how Woodrell was a fan of singer Woody Guthrie and when he was twelve he told everyone to call him Woody. Only the older kids, then, thought it was funny to call him “Boner” instead. And for a while it stuck.
So, in that disconnect the words tumbled out, “Oh, my gawd. I’m so sorry, Boner!”
As soon as the name left my lips, I knew what I had done. All I could do is stand in shock as the six-foot-whatever all-star turned a shade of red I didn’t know was possible. He looked like a thermometer about to burst.
I didn’t see the fist.
I fell back before I even knew Woodrell clocked me, scraping my elbows on the pea-stone covered causeway. Immediately, spectators circled, making a wall around Woodrell and me. A tiny colosseum where I was already fallen.
“I didn’t mean nothing,” I pleaded from my backside, looking up the Goliath to my David.
“Don’t you touch him” I hear Easy call out from behind.
“What you going to do about it?” Came another voice came from behind. I recognized it as Donnie Ray, Woodrell’s younger brother. I glanced back and saw he had Easy by the arms, all tangled up behind and twisted in hold of some kind. Easy attempted pull out, but with little success.
Donnie didn’t have Woodrell’s oaken stature. No, he was lankier with hard sharp features. If you didn’t know them, you’d never guess they were brothers, much less related, save for their mean disposition. My father called them Irish twins once because they were only ten months apart. Being younger of the two, Donnie had never seen their father, who was sent up to Moundsville and sat in the chair for killing his best friend Tupper Laughton. I’ve been told that Tupper was lanky fellow himself.
I figured my best option was to stay put and not move. Woodrell was three years older and a hundred pounds heavier, and god knows how much taller. He wrapped his thick hands around my shirt collar, deciding he didn’t like my option. Woodrell lifted me off the ground, and there was little I could do to resist.
Once he had me to my feet, Woodrell looked confused. I could tell he was attempting to form to words, but all that blood squeezed into his radish head wasn’t sending the right transmissions, and all I got was the heat huffing from his gaping mouth.
“I got money,” I blurted, not thinking again.
Woodrell’s face dropped a shade, his grip lessened, and maybe a thought was knocking around after all. But then his left fist tightened on my shirt collar and he drew back his right. He actually started to grin.
“I’ll pound you, and take the money. How about that?”
I heard Donnie Ray grunt, and then saw Easy break through the wall of spectators. The younger brother was on his knees, clutching his heritage.
Easy Cook hit Woodrell Daniels like a cattle rod, pure force hammered from a piston. Unstoppable. They toppled to the ground, Woodrell shocked, unable to comprehend what had happened, as Easy flailed his fist with mindless accuracy. It was all the larger boy could do to protect his face.
I was on my feet, and Donnie Ray was still on his knees contemplating his fatherhood. I could see that Easy was nowhere near ready to stop, but it had to stop. I grabbed at his arm, and yanked him off Woodrell.
Easy’s eyes were filled with rage as he stared up at me, but I held my gaze and he snapped to, and clambered to his feet as well. I gave him another tug and we ran, breaking through the human arena. I glanced back only for a moment to make sure that the “king of the field” was still moving, and I saw him press his meaty hands against his bloodied face. Seeing he was alright, I urged my legs to keep moving, my hand still tethered to Easy.
Deciding it wasn’t the best idea to hang around the Fair, we found The Colonel’s old Ford, leaving a note to say we were going to walk home up the tracks. It’d take us all afternoon, and I’m sure we would be thinking about those cold RC bottles before the afternoon was over.
“What made you do that?” I asked.
We hadn’t really spoke or even stopped to think about what consequence our run in with Woodrell might have.
He shook his head uncommittedly.
“I don’t know. I mean, I knew that I wanted to stop him from pounding you. I couldn’t let him hurt you over some stupid accident.”
“Yeah, but you could… I don’t know… just knocked him down. You hurt him.”
“I wanted to hurt him.”
I knew then that it wasn’t Woodrell he was hitting. All those strikes were hitting someone else.
I hugged him. He pushed me off and looked me in the face. And laughed.
“You got a shiner too. We’re brothers.”
With all the adrenaline, and the nonstop flight, I hadn’t even considered the pain gnawing under my left eye. I didn’t dare to touch it. And a queer notion came to mind.
“Yeah, the Shiner Brothers.”
“Maybe, we should go on the road? Be bigger than Woody Guthrie.”
“You know how to play guitar?” I asked, “’cause I can’t sing a lick.”
We laughed. If we’re lucky we’d get home by supper.
I wonder what Uncle Jasper will think about the adventures of the Shiner Brothers?