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"Rufus," i say, gentle. "Rufus, go on wherever you please."
He swings his head around to look at Billy.
Billy gives him a sign that I suppose means, Go on, boy.
Rufus stands up slowly and trots off. Billy and I trail along, hanging back some so as to give Rufus his own notion of where he wants to go. We go down the block and around the corner, Rufus pointing west as if he's heading somewhere in particular. We're sailing toward town, sure enough, crossing the tracks at Peach Avenue, when we see Mr. Laughlin and his bride rolling toward us. Mr. Laughlin is a junk man of sorts. Wears bib overalls and logging boots. He's skinny with thin arms, hard, though, as those hickory handles on axes. He's bald as a chick with a little bit of dandelion fuzz on the top. Mrs. Laughlin always sits in this wagon fashioned from a shipping pallet with little wheels to it. She's as big as a sea manatee, those slow blubbery creatures, and as plain, but pleasant as anyone's mom. She just sits on that pallet, raggedy clothes they've collected spread all around her like a queen's dress.
"Hey, boys," says Mr. Laughlin, stopping.
"Hello," I say.
Rufus is reading the news of those rags with his nose. Gives the whole pile a once-over to get the headlines, then burrows in on a part that interests him. He's nosing in hard on some gossip he's found, and it tickles Mrs. Laughlin's bad leg. She has a leg that's withered up. From polio, is what I heard.
"Oh, Rufus, you dear," she says kindly.
Mr. Laughlin says, "Paolo, where you going this morning?"
My name is Paolo 'cause my mother got to name me. My folks took turns: Ernie, Hector, Betsy, Margarita, Shawna, me Paolo, Alice-Ann and Aurora, who were twins, George, and Maria-Teresina-the-Little-Rose, as she was the last and my mom wanted to be sure to get all her Italian licks in at the end. Try going around looking like you climbed down from the Appalachians with a name like Paolo. It'll give you an education. My dad said it'd give me patience with folks that are dumb, and being as there are lots of those, I have learned a mighty patience, though I quit all my formal schooling at a young age. You can't do that now, but back then it was nothing. But Mr. Laughlin isn't dumb, and I say, "Well, sir, we're giving Rufus a walk."
"And Billy, too?" he asks, smiling. "He'll enjoy that." I know he's kidding about Billy being like a dog out for a walk 'cause he knows about affliction on account of Mrs. Laughlin's leg and 'cause he's smiling. Mr. Laughlin has teeth that remind me of a picket fence with some of the slats kicked in. Those two are genuine poor, though my dad always says notice how clean they are and Mr. Laughlin shaved up properly, as he always is. Not easy when you live in a shed near the tracks, that cleanliness.
"Yes, sir, we're all going for a walk, I guess."
"Well, I wish you a good day, then, boys," he says, and leans into this leather harness he's got rigged to himself and the pallet, and the little wheels squeak and they move off very slowly. Mrs. Laughlin turns around and waves with a smile. We watch them till they're almost out of our vision, as they are a thoughtful sight.
We go on our way for another seven blocks or so, until Rufus pulls up just as we're getting downtown. The main part of Orange Grove City starts with Kern and R streets, where the big Cathedral of San Joaquin has stood ever since folks could afford to put up something lasting. A place familiar to us, as my mother drags us there every Sunday and sometimes Wednesday nights, too. It's all brick. Rises up proud, with twin spires that throw shadows for three blocks.
Rufus runs right across its big, wide steps and disappears around the side of it. He runs right down along the row of big, stained-glass windows, us following, and darts into this good-size garden that's all caged, sides and top, too, with Cyclone fencing. It's the Monsignor's garden. He lives a boring life, with no family and all, so the congregation took pity and made it for him, though he is never around there. Half his flock are Irish, like my dad, and after a long day with Mass and tending the sick and such, he has to go see them at Murphey's Place most every evening, which the men don't mind as he is a popular one and would never leave our parish. He likes to help folks rather than boss 'em. Kids like him too, 'cause he wears a cape like Zorro and sometimes will slip you a quarter. He never bothers us about growing up to be priests like Father Tom and Father Dave do. Or, as a matter of fact, like all those others whose names I don't remember did also. Those others moved on after a short stay because the Monsignor's ways troubled them and their modern notions of priesting.
Rufus goes down a short row of snap peas and slips in where we can't see him, excepting his tail, flagging his progress. Down that row we go, and then farther on, where some corn's growing tall, Rufus disappears. I can hear him whining, though, and we can see the stalks shaking, and we follow that shaking, Billy going first, and then out of those stalks of corn an arm shoots, grabs me by the back of my neck!
"Where you going, squirt?" comes the voice of Early Johnson, comes right out of his red, terrible face. I half faint and can't talk, just keep looking at him. Early Johnson is a stout oil drum of a man from Wyoming. Black hair sprouts from every part of himself. Even the arm with the hand that has me held up like a fish to be measured has a whole nest of spidery hair crawling over it. Hair pokes out the neck of his T-shirt, from his ears and his nostrils. His beard climbs down and curls to a point at his belly. Why, the only bit of his red watermelon skin that shows runs across his forehead and around his eyes. Right now those eyes are hot coals, disturbed and glinting at me.
"Hey, Early," is all I can manage to say. Billy's not showing himself anymore. I don't hear Rufus.
"Don't call me that," Early snaps.
I forgot in my confusion that nobody calls him that to his face. Folks refer to Earl Johnson as "Early" since his job of caretaker for the church has him up every day well before the seven o'clock Mass. They say he is gentle if you leave him alone but never to rile him. In fact, I have it known to me, by way of my older brother Ernie, that his great-great-granddaddy had been a mountain man who got snowed in one winter in the Rockies and got so lonesome he married a bear. All Johnsons have been touchy and hairy ever since, even the women.
I haven't seen any of those. It's my understanding Early came out to California by himself. I have no doubt, though, if the story is true, they wouldn't be at a disadvantage, because circuses are popular and because I suppose there are still places up in the Rockies where women are scarce, and an ugly one will do as well as one that is dainty one not in need of a regular shave.
"Mr. Johnson," I say, correcting myself.
"That's right. You one of the O'Neil clan, ain't ja?" he says.
"Well, now that's straightened out, jez suppose you tell me what you doing in the Monsignor's place?"
And I almost tell him, but I see Billy and Rufus through the cornstalks, stealing out of the gate. Rufus has a face full of mud, and Billy is waving what just looks like might be a five-dollar bill.
Copyright © 2005 by D. James Smith