Read an Excerpt
By George Whitmore
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 George Whitmore
All rights reserved.
"YOU WOULD NEVER LISTEN to me and now look what's happened!" Mama fainted dead away. The next thing I knew, I woke up with my leg gone.
She meant I would refuse to walk when I could run. I would not look both ways before I crossed the street. I would forget and have to be sent back to the store when it was already dark.
I felt sorry for the man who hit me. When they put me in the ambulance, he was sitting there on the curb, an honest working man in coveralls.
I would run. I ran blind—I was twelve years old but more a baby. In my imagination, there were worse things along that stretch of road than getting hit.
"What is wrong with you?"
I was a case, that's for sure. My arm was broke. The skin was off whole parts of me. I had stitches I didn't even know about. When my sisters came to see me they both cried out.
I had two doctors. The first one said "That child keeps wetting the bed his stump will never heal." The other said "Sure you can take him home but how will you take care of him?"
Mama said "We will take good care of him. He is the only one we have."
I was in and out. I lost whole days. I heard Mama saying "We're going to be paying off the bills for the rest of our lives."
I tried to think how I could help. I heard her say "Now I guess we won't have to buy that bike." I cried because I could not have my paper route now.
When I was in the hospital, I was like the lady in the magician's box, who must smile and smile as the blades get slipped into her. When I came home, Mama tried to keep this torture up as they had told her to. However I begged, Mama would poke and prod. Mama would flip-flop me morning and night. Mama wore herself clean out with tormenting.
When I was in the hospital, I heard the nurses say about a little girl who died "Do you know what they said? They opened up that little tyke and found such a tumor there she must have been in terrible pain all her life. But you see she didn't never know it. She must of thought This is just life."
I lay there thinking To be in terrible pain and not know it because it was all you ever knew. And maybe this is true. Maybe you just don't know it. Maybe if you're lucky you get numb, for all I know is, after a while that chawed up lost leg was all I felt—even if it was buried somewhere in some city dump, that lost leg was more real than my real body. Answer when I'm talking! Mama yelled at me but I was deaf and dumb. At night I turned that lost leg over and over and over like a new limb held in my hands and after a while there wasn't anything they could do to me that hurt anymore.
Mama was wore out. She worked all day at Monkey Wards. She waited on tables on the top floor. I liked it there because you could sit on that balcony and watch all the shoppers far below crowding up against the counters.
I lived with Mama, Betty and Dolores in a half house—each step on the stairway there was supposedly the same as the one next door. We rented our half longer than anyone else.
When I came home from the hospital it was summer already. Mama had a real hospital bed waiting for me out on the sleeping porch—they could not get it up the stairs. She made Betty and Dolores wait on me. I thought Mama was so wonderful.
This sleeping porch was on the side of the house and lilac bushes screened it from the street. In early summer those blossoms hung off every branch like big bunches of grapes but through the chinks in the bushes I could see people passing by.
Most days the only sign of life all day was a sprinkler on the lawn across the street but every day at four the paperboy who got my route would come whooshing by, pumping hard.
I watched TV and did my puzzle books—I was a puzzle freak and went through dozens of those books each week. I even had made up puzzles myself. This was my only talent and had once got me in the paper.
They came out and took my picture. They printed it in the paper over the caption
Boy Puzzle Whiz
But now the neighbors did not go by our house and say as I hoped they would "That's the house where the puzzle whiz lives." They said "Look at that yard, it's disgraceful, it's all dirt."
When I got my cast off, they told Mama I was not yet to go to physical therapy in spite of all they had promised. Sometimes my pee was still pink. I lived in fear.
"Get ready to die," Dolores said setting down my lunch.
One day in the middle of that summer, Mama came to me with something in her hand. She sat down on the edge of the bed.
"I found this in the hamper when I was sorting the wash," Mama said, letting my handkerchief uncrumple. "I know boys have urges," she said, "that are mostly natural."
I thought of lying and saying I just blew my nose in it.
She held the handkerchief up. "I don't want to see this ever again, understand?"
I did. I nodded. But a door closed in me. Mama had shut it.
I was, you see, the only male in that household until Uncle Wayne came home.
For all my childhood it seemed Uncle Wayne was a sailor. He was away in the navy so long I didn't know what he looked like anymore.
We all worshipped Uncle Wayne the way you worship movie stars. A postcard from Uncle Wayne was a holy relic. We all awaited news from him.
When I had my accident, a package arrived for me from Honolulu. In it was a plastic ukulele. You could strum on the strings or play it with a crank. It played Lovely Hula Hands.
So all my childhood Uncle Wayne was sailing around the world from one dangerous port to another. I found out later of course he had not been so close to combat, only dispatched some fighters into the war zone, but when Uncle Wayne came home he might as well have been the greatest hero.
When Uncle Wayne came home he came up to my bed and stood there grinning and said "What the hell happened to you, Skeezix?" The first thing you noticed was the ring on his little finger. It was a diamond engagement ring. Betty perched on the arm of his chair and picked up his hand.
"What's this, Uncle Wayne?"
"This here, Betty, was recently returned to me by a young lady in San Diego."
"Oh Uncle Wayne, you mean you was engaged?"
"For a brief while there I was, kiddo."
But when he came downstairs later it was gone.
Women made a terrible fuss over him. Aunt Eileen almost peed her pants to see her baby brother when he walked in the door. He tossed down his white duffle bag and the girls were jumping up and down but Mama stayed in the kitchen frying chicken and he had to go in after her. She was crying too.
That night we had a picnic in our back yard. Wayne carried me out and laid me on the air mattress to Dad's old sleeping bag. We ate chicken and potato salad and watermelon. By the time we finished eating it was dark. But we stayed out there talking and laughing at Uncle Wayne's jokes—I thought he was so funny. There was just the sink light on in the house and a blue glow from the TV next door where you could hear the sound of laughter from New York.
It was so hot. Everyone agreed it was a real Nebraska summer to welcome Wayne home.
Everyone was amazed how fast the plane had brought him home.
"I bet you ain't even lost your sea-legs," Uncle Sparky said. "Those ships are just like floating cities, ain't they?" he said.
"Sure are," said Uncle Wayne.
"What was your ship called, Uncle Wayne?"
"My ship was the Alameda."
"Will you miss the Alameda, Uncle Wayne?"
"Why, hell's bells, honey. The Alameda was my whole life."
But now he announced he was going away again soon to open up his new garage in California. He was going to be a partner with his shipboard pal the Chief. We all yelled No, but he held his hands up and said California is the place.
Then at that very moment the phone rang long distance. Uncle Wayne bounded up the stairs.
It was so hot the birds hung like they were dead in the trees. We were all silent. We didn't have anything to say to each other. We could hear Uncle Wayne on the phone.
"No, I'm sorry, Miss," he said, "Mr. Wayne Smith is not here."
Then he came out back and said that was all arranged ahead of time so the Chief could call person to person and know he was home safe but not have to pay for the call.
By the time Eileen stood up and dusted off her skirt telling Sparky they must go home, so many empty beer bottles lined those back steps it looked like you could walk up into the house on them.
Mama went inside and washed up the pots and pans Betty and Dolores had conveniently forgot. Dolores went up to set her hair. Betty sat there next to Uncle Wayne on the blanket with her head on his shoulder like he was her drive-in dream date.
"Why can't you stay in Nebraska forever, Uncle Wayne?"
"Well soon you can visit me, can't you? Wouldn't you like to take a bus all the way across the U.S.?"
"Only if it was to see you."
"She gets car sick," I said.
Uncle Wayne stroked her cheek.
The porch light came on and Mama, moths around her head, said it was time for bed. So Uncle Wayne picked me up in his arms and carried me inside.
Uncle Wayne smelled of sweat and whiskey and beers and Camels—Grandma once said How bad Grandpa's long-johns stink from his chewing tobacco when I put them through the mangle!
Before I went to sleep, Mama gave me a sponge bath and bandaged the stump as you must do.
"Will Uncle Wayne live in his own house in California?" I asked her.
"Where else would he live?"
"Will he own a convertible?"
"He'd like to I bet."
"Will he have a swimming pool?"
We learned about the Chief. First of all he was Uncle Wayne's best friend and also his chief petty officer. Second, the nickname Uncle Wayne gave him on the Alameda, the Shadow, was given him for being a great practical joker. The Chief came from Chula Vista, a town near Mexico, and had a legendary capacity for booze. According to Uncle Wayne, the Chief was going to borrow money from his brother-in-law to open up that garage.
Uncle Wayne spoke of his plans at the breakfast table. Mama was upset for he was her nearest and dearest and had been away so long. "This is so fast," she said. "Why can't you boys open up a garage here in Lincoln?"
"Because the Chief's out on the Coast, Sis."
"But why can't he come here?"
"Because all his connections is out there, you see."
Mama shook her head. "You go out there and I'm afraid you will never come back home."
"Sure I will."
"And what about our Dad?"
She did not mention Grandma. Uncle Wayne had really come home to Mama because she was the only one who was once a real mother to him.
Grandpa worked on the railroad so all their married life, Grandpa and Grandma were never out of earshot of it. Grandma said when Mama was little they lived in a house so close to the tracks she kept the front door locked and hid the key—she was afraid one of the kids would fall off the porch in front of the train.
They lived in Warren some thirty miles from us. Their house there was for once only on a spur of the railroad so freight cars came by only once or twice a day, but at night the lights of every auto going over the grade would shine in the downstairs window. I liked going to Grandpa and Grandma's because they had a gravel pit out back where you could play War and a big cellar full of busted-up furniture and old magazines.
In truth there was not much good about this house where Grandpa and Grandma had finally settled and I myself lived so much of my life. Being a man who worked with his hands, you would have thought Grandpa would be handy around his own house, but he never fixed a thing on it and everything was always falling apart.
This house which stood next to a stinking bayou started out as a mere shack and just grew one little room at a time. The only good thing about it I thought was a bathroom Dad built onto it off the kitchen before I was even born—it had beautiful fixtures and stood on a slab of concrete, so the year the river came up over the town dykes and the bayou flooded, Grandpa's house floated away but Dad's bathroom stayed put. A big truck hauled the house back to the foundations.
We used to go to Grandpa's for dinner every other Sunday at twelve on the dot. We all sat around the table in the kitchen and watched Grandpa stuff himself.
He took giant helpings. He could eat four or five big slices of meat loaf in a sitting. He would take a big mess of mashed potatoes and make a volcano filled with gravy. He liked to mix everything up—beans, meat and potatoes would all go into Grandpa's mouth together.
Grandpa had a handsome Studebaker but he liked it too much to drive it. So when Uncle Wayne arrived in Lincoln Grandpa said Let Mohammed come to the Mountain. But Uncle Wayne didn't go. He hated his old family home. After lots of phone calls Grandpa and Grandma came to Lincoln after all only because Sparky went and drove them.
And after all when they met after such a long time, Grandpa kissed Uncle Wayne on the ear and held him like he would like to dance with him—Grandpa dance! Grandpa was so big around it would take two girls to hold him in their arms.
All of us were scared of Grandpa but not Uncle Wayne. All of us knew the story of how Uncle Wayne would never let Grandpa whip him—not since Grandpa cornered him in the cellar one time and Wayne tried to slice him with a knife.
I myself had a first memory of Grandpa. It was him bouncing me on his knee and making me so sick because I was only two and afraid he would not stop—he might bounce me until my eyes popped out of my head and I bit off my poor tongue.
When Uncle Wayne told Grandpa his plans about California, Grandpa was mystified. He had just figured all that time Wayne would work on the railroad when he got out.
"But I told Ed the other day."
"Dad, I never said a thing about working on no damned railroad."
"I told him you'd call."
"I'm just here for a brief visit's all."
"You'll never get the benefits they got!"
This meant a great deal to Grandpa. Grandma was going to have a pension equal to one-third his current wage.
Uncle Wayne just laughed, covering his bad teeth—he forgot the navy fixed them for him free.
"Why the hell did you get yourself discharged then?" roared Grandpa. He was shaking. This was their life-long battle and Grandpa sensed he was losing again. He looked around for someone to yell at and decided to pick on Mama for the spoons—Grandma always had to keep spoons on the table for him in a cut-glass jar but Mama didn't.
"Why the hell can't you keep a proper house, Janice!"
"I am not going to work on no goddamned railroad."
"Well why the hell then did you get out of the navy?"
Grandma was twitching with nerves by now. Her fingers ran like spiders over the buttons on her dress.
"Wayne will make up his own mind," Mama was so bold as to say.
Then a tear formed in the corner of one of Grandpa's old yellow eyes—he figured maybe he could weep his way out of this. He said "This'll about kill your poor mother."
Grandma sat up in her chair.
Grandpa turned to Grandma and said "Now won't it!"
Grandma just about jumped out of her chair.
Wayne lit a Camel.
"I would like it," Grandma kind of squeaked, "if Wayne could move closer."
"Course you would!"
Uncle Wayne shrugged Grandpa off as if to say China was not far enough away from Nebraska to suit him but California would do.
That next week when he got a letter from the Chief he sat there in the living room on the sofa and snickered away at it.
"This man is such a card."
"Does he say anything about the loan from his brother-in-law, Uncle Wayne?"
Uncle Wayne flipped over the paper and kept on reading.
"I bet you miss the Chief, Uncle Wayne."
"I was with the man almost twenty-four hours a day, Skeezix, three whole years you know."
"I wish the Shadow would come here."
"Well, Betty, you will get to meet him, won't you, when you come to California."
When I was in the hospital my class made me a big get-well card out of construction paper and everyone signed it, but after I came home nobody visited but Wesley.
Wesley said all the kids were now taking the Red Cross water safety class learning how to swim. He showed me the crawl moving his arms like a windmill and kicking one leg into thin air.
That summer Wesley got to go Summer Baptist Bible too—Wesley had about the best life of any boy in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was an only child. He lived in a big house with trees in front and a two-car garage. He had a room full of toys like an ant farm, a chemistry set and a Prince Valiant castle with rubber men.
When Wesley came over to see me when I was laid up he would bring his used comic books—Superman, Terry and the Pirates, and horror comics where people got chopped up or melted or burned or slashed to ribbons. Wesley and me would argue over things like How much of you would blow up if a hand-grenade went off when you were holding it? I said all of you while Wesley said just the middle.
That summer Wesley and his family took a trip to the Badlands in their Buick. The marvel of this car was that it had air-conditioning, so Wesley's mama took her canary in a teeny cage in the glove compartment and it didn't die.
Ever since I had to stop parochial school when Dad left, Wesley was my best friend in public school. Before my accident we spent Saturdays playing in the park or in the schoolyard, in his room or at my house. We would sleep over and play games like Hearts or Clue.
Excerpted from Nebraska by George Whitmore. Copyright © 1987 George Whitmore. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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