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By Chris Carlton Brown
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2009 Chris Carlton Brown
All rights reserved.
HOW TO USE THE COMMODE
It's always a clean white car — this time a Ford. It's always a young man who drives it, a student of social work or corrections. Cornfields and pastures roll on the opposite side of the glass like a movie until we get to the river and cross it. When we arrive at the Intake Cottage, I sit on an orange plastic chair in front of two ladies who are typing. One of the ladies makes a call, and after a while, a skinny man comes in. The lady hands him a file, and the driver hands me over to the skinny man, who takes me to a room with more plastic chairs around a table. One boy with a buzz cut, wearing brown clothes that remind me of grocery bags, sits at the table. We can hear the ladies through the wall, typing and chatting.
As soon as the skinny man leaves, the other boy starts to talk. "My name's Beadron. They call me Babybird. On the street, I was the singer for a band. You ever heard of the Sheba Club in DC?" I shake my head. "We played there," he says. Then he half closes his eyes and starts to sing, "I won't be your second choice. I'm going to be your number one or I'm not going to be there at all." He sings it too slowly, so I don't recognize the song until later. He really looks like a baby bird. His neck's long, and his head is fuzzy.
After a while, a man comes in and calls my name from the open file folder in his hand. He is very big and half bald and speaks in a no-nonsense but relaxed deep voice. "My name is Mr. Ball. I'm going to take you up to Cottage B." Then he walks me up the hill in the June heat. A breeze blows now and then off the river that spreads below and behind us. Boys in the distance are cutting grass with sickles.
On the hill, a big old brick dining hall spreads across one end of the courtyard. At the opposite end there's another building, not as wide but high, that looks like a huge brick barn. Next to the brick barn is a white chapel. Old brick cottages flank the other two sides of the courtyard, and sycamores line the sidewalks. If you could shrink the courtyard, it would look like a model "hometown of the past" on a train set. We head off down behind Cottage B, on the far side of the square next to the brick barn.
Down the slope, you can see cows in the fields and a barn in the distance. Closer in to the cottage, boys with buzz cuts and grocery-bag uniforms and brogues are beginning to stand up from the shade of live oaks. They are lining up for watermelons that are quartered and handed out from the back of a flatbed truck. Boys are sitting around in clusters under the oaks in the still afternoon heat, chattering and eating watermelon, with that breeze now and then coming up across the fields from the river.
Mr. Ball took me over to Mr. Lindquist, the Cottage B housefather. Mr. Lindquist was thin and not tall, but he spoke hearty. "Welcome to Belmont School for Boys," he said. He told me he was a marine and that the boys of Cottage B were good boys, mostly, but if I had any trouble, I was to tell him and not try to settle it myself. "If there's going to be any fighting around here, it's going to be with me." Then he told me to get in line for some watermelon before it was all gone. I was the only one in line wearing street clothes.
I got a quarter of a watermelon and went over and sat next to two white boys under a tree. A dark-haired boy with freckles asked me, "Did you come up from the Diagnostic Center?"
"Yeah," I said.
"I'm Evan. What's your name?"
"That's a dog's name," said Evan.
A big boy with wiry blond hair broke in, "You call him a dog, he'll show you to a dog named Duke, man. I was at the Diagnostic Center with this boy. He got into it with a big black guy and shot his cuff — got him right by his trousers and threw him. He'll give you a go with the dukes all right."
"We call him Snicklesnort," said the freckled boy.
"Snicklesnort? Is that what they called you at the Diagnostic Center?" I asked him.
"No, they called me Jerry." I could see how he got his nickname. He talked as though he were complaining all the time.
"Yeah, I remember you at the Diagnostic Center," I said. It wasn't true, but as soon as I said it, it became part of our story; we knew each other before we got to the Hill.
At the Diagnostic Center the boys thought I might be squirrelly because I was quiet and read books. We had wrestling one day, and I pinned a hardrock who didn't know how to wrestle. That I didn't get creamed surprised everyone so much that stories started popping up in other cottages. Sometimes I beat up a big guy, sometimes two, sometimes a counselor. I figured it was a good story to keep me out of fights. Each boy who told it knew it would put him on my good side, and it did.
All the boys went through the Diagnostic Center: deaf boys, retarded boys, abused boys, insane boys, delinquents, and boys who didn't have anywhere else to go. All the girls went through the Diagnostic Center too, but lived in separate cottages. We were all sorted and distributed out from there. Boys were sent to foster homes or to forestry camp or to special treatment schools. Delinquent boys fourteen and older came to Belmont School for Boys, known to us as the Hill.
There were twenty of us in Cottage B. Mr. Lindquist and his wife lived in the part upstairs that looked like a house. Before breakfast and after dinner we hung out in the cottage basement and Mr. Lindquist watched us from a desk in front. We sat on indestructible wooden chairs, which were painted with thick enamel the gray color of a ship's hull, at heavy round wooden tables that would be nearly impossible to throw and would be hard to even turn over. The tables were enameled the same forest green as paint that covered the cinderblock walls up to chest height from the concrete floor. After showers, we marched upstairs to a dorm wing where we slept in double-decker bunks stacked along both walls of a narrow hall, with windows at intervals on each wall. They left the windows open, so you could hear night insects through the security mesh.
That first evening, I took a seat at the table with Snicklesnort, Evan, and Babybird. There was also a Mexican kid there named Ben Susan. Evan introduced him. "You heard of the boy named Sue? This is the girl named Sue."
Ben Susan gave him a dark look, and Evan laughed and patted him on the shoulder. "Ben Susan's a good guy." The Mexican was small, but he was sprung tight like a switchblade.
We started swapping stories right off, Hill stories and street stories. Babybird was talking about how he got sent up. "My uncle and me was breaking into soda and snack machines all over the county. When my uncle went to court, the judge said, 'Six months in the county jail,' and my uncle said, 'I can take that standing on my head.' So the judge said, 'All right. One to three years, state penitentiary.'"
Babybird was chuckling over how witty his uncle was until Snicklesnort weighed in. "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard."
Babybird snapped back at him, "I'll tell you what: My uncle can kick your ass." Then he settled back, satisfied that he'd won the argument.
Babybird turned to me. "You're going to need a locker mate. You want to share with me?"
"Sure," I said without thinking, and everyone went quiet for a minute, like I'd farted.
When I got up to go to the water fountain, Ben Susan got up too. I didn't like him walking behind me, so I stopped and turned aside and he stopped too.
Mr. Lindquist yelled, "Smoke 'em if you got 'em."
Ben Susan said, "Shoot me a fog," and I took out a Camel for him and one for me. We were standing at the entrance to the area with sinks and showers. "Listen, man," Ben Susan said, "you don't want to share your locker with Babybird. He don't get nothing from home. He'll be smoking all your fogs. Pair up with Evan; he gets cookies and stuff all the time."
Back at the table, Babybird had picked up a pencil and was drawing pictures. Snicklesnort asked me what I was sent up for, and I answered, "Nothing."
"Nothing?" he asked.
"Yeah. I was a victim of circumstance," I said.
They all stared at me, trying to figure out whether I was messing with them. The answer had already become an inside joke between me and myself. I knew I was guilty as hell. I just couldn't come up with the right story of exactly what it was I was guilty of. What I knew for sure was that Bradley Davis was dead, and that if there were any circumstances to blame, I wasn't a victim of them — I had made them. The answer always distanced me from the other boys.
"How about you, Evan?" I asked.
"Dope," Evan said, and told the story.
* * *
I got a coffee can full of mescaline powder, and I was capping it and selling it at school. One day I took the can and the empty caps and put them in my locker. Somebody ratted on me, and they busted my locker open with a crowbar. There was some pot in there, too. The vice principal came with two cops to get me in the gym. I went along with them, saying, "Surely, officers, there must be some mistake," until we got outside. When we got halfway to the cop car, I squatted down like I was sick.
One of the cops leaned over me and asked, "Are you on drugs right now, son?"
I nodded, holding my belly, then bolted right under his arm, yelling, "But I can still outrun your sorry ass." I was hauling with both cops behind me, feeling the traction of my Joe Lapchick ground grabbers, and yelling to my bobos "Don't fail me now, Joe!" When I got to the woods behind the school, I dived into a bush and peeked out to see 'em go past. Then I doubled back and just strolled over to my friend's car and lay down in the back seat looking at a Playboy until he came out.
When he saw me, he cracked up laughing and said, "I guess you better stay in my barn tonight." For three weeks, I hung around town and played track and field with the cops. During the day, I went fishing or swimming at the river. I went alone mostly, but sometimes a friend would skip school and go with me and we'd blow a joint. After school, girls would bring me fried chicken and potato salad and stuff from home, and I'd play sandlot football or hang out at the Pizza Box. But I always stayed outside so I could run, and I always wore my Joe Lapchick ground grabbers.
About twice a week a cop would spot me and yell, "Collar that boy!" I'd take off running with two or three cops after me, yelling, "Don't fail me now, Joe." Every time I'd outrun them until I got to a bush and I'd dive in. When they started looking around for me, I'd bolt off in a different direction, then I'd stroll back to the gang like nothing happened and the crowd would go wild.
* * *
Babybird's drawing looked like a Road Runner cartoon. Evan's feet were giant sneakers, and they were making circles to show how fast he was going, bolting away from a bush. A Wile E. Coyote in a cop uniform was holding a club up in the air with his nose stuck in the bush. The caption read, "Evan says: 'Joe Lapchick's ground grabbers is faster than cops.' I thought the cartoon was good and passed it on to Snickle.
"How'd they finally nab you?" I asked Evan.
* * *
I was fishing at the river. It was a nice spring day, and I thought I'd blow a joint. I fell asleep for a while, and when I woke up, I heard them little Hostess white powdered doughnuts at the 7-Eleven calling for me. "Come eat me, Evan. Come eat me." And I rose up bloodshot like a zombie and followed the voices right up the path and up the street and into that damned 7-Eleven and to that doughnut shelf and I found that pack that was calling for me and started shoving him in my mouth. The guy behind the counter looked like Bela Lugosi, and he was always chatting it up with the cops. I saw Bela jumping up and down like a cheerleader when he saw them coming, but instead of running, I just kept eating with one hand and shoving them little white doughnut packs in my pockets with the other.
* * *
"Where'd all this happen?" I asked.
"You got a locker mate?" I asked Evan. He shook his head. I said, "I'll locker with you." Then I turned to Babybird. "Sorry, man." Babybird waved it off. We both knew that the other guys had already decided who was going to be my locker mate. They just hadn't told Babybird. Maybe they didn't even have to tell one another; it was just the right order of things.
Every morning we'd go down to the dining hall and stand in a long line in the courtyard. You had to keep your hands in your back pockets, and there was no talking in line. The hall was like a gigantic brick cave with slow fans hanging down from a ceiling that seemed fifty feet high. I wouldn't be surprised if the hall had been there in the Civil War. The whole place smelled as though past meals cooking had worn into the bricks. It was nice, like the taste of tobacco in a pipe after the bowl is cured.
Boys in worn white outfits, with white hats the shape of coffee cans, served up the food. Since you had your hands in your back pockets and couldn't talk, you'd nod your head at what you wanted, and they'd slap it on your plate and pass it down on your tray. The food was more than okay, although you'd never catch a boy admitting it. It was good, fresh food grown right there on the farm, grown and slaughtered and prepared by the boys themselves. It was farm food — they didn't waste much of anything — but I got so I would even shovel away cow's brains on toast and like it.
During my first breakfast there, Babybird told me the cooks beat off in the liver. You could see the huge open kitchen from the front of the dining hall, and it was hard to picture how the cooks could pull it off. But every boy on the Hill believed that the cooks beat off in the liver, even if they didn't think it really happened, and no boy ever ate the stuff. That didn't keep them from serving it, though. About once a month they'd serve liver, no one would eat it, and I guess they threw it all in with the hog slop or something.
After breakfast they marched us out into the courtyard by cottages. Then they called groups out for jobs or school. The first detail they called out was special force. For your first two weeks they put you on special force with rehab lab and orientation.
I didn't have any idea what I was supposed to do, but Snicklesnort motioned me to fall out and kept a close watch on me from the first. Snickle was the only boy who did special force all the time as a regular job. He did whatever the crew boss told him. All the boys called the crew boss Shorty Nub when he couldn't hear them. I never knew his real name until much later. Shorty Nub always called Snickle "Side" as in "sidekick." And he liked to deliver his orders through Snickle rather than directly to the boys, even if the boys could hear him giving the orders. He'd say, "Side, go tell that towheaded runt that if he don't pick up his pace he could be working through lunch without no water." The blond boy could hear the Nub's voice — lazy, like a banjo played out of tune on purpose just to annoy you — but Snickle would still have to come over and say to the boy, "Boss says pick it up."
It was the end of June and hot as hell. They didn't load us up in the trucks or anything, they just gave us hand sickles and told us to get on our hands and knees and cut grass around the hedges. We were hot and thirsty and bored, but the worst part was knowing that we were doing nothing — that they could do the work we were doing with a tractor.
Around eleven o'clock, I got a big blister on my hand and it broke. Snickle had run to do an errand. I thought the Nub might take me out of the sun to get a bandage. He was black and stout with green eyes that locked on you as though he were staring you down all the time and was always just about to lash out. All the boys were afraid of him, but word was he was even tougher on the black boys than the whites. He listened to country music, and boys said he wanted to be just like a white redneck, like Charley Pride, and he was pretty good at it. He managed to keep his hair cut in the shape of a box, the shape of a white man's hair greased back, with sideburns that got broader below the ears.
I walked up to Shorty Nub and showed him my hand. "Sir, I can't sickle anymore with this hand. May I go to the infirmary to get it taped up?"
Shorty Nub locked on me fearsome and asked, "How many hands you got, boy?"
"Two, sir," I answered.
Excerpted from Hoppergrass by Chris Carlton Brown. Copyright © 2009 Chris Carlton Brown. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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