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By Donald R. Dempsey
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Donald R. Dempsey
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Hurry the hell up, Donny," Tommy whispered.
He was only making me that much more nervous. I was making my fourth trip across a creaky porch with at least two more to go, while all he had to do was hand off the bottles to Rupe and wait in the dark, with the safety of the alley a mere few strides away. I glared at him through the gloom, handing him two cartons of empty Pepsi bottles. He flashed that wide smile of his, broad white teeth splitting the black face I could hardly make out. I heard him laugh as he turned away, quietly but purposely clanking the glassware as I headed back to continue gathering our loot.
Of course I was gathering nothing. I was stealing. It was what we did. Pop bottles were our chosen and most convenient means of obtaining money, but we weren't above pilfering loose power tools, bikes, change out of the ashtrays of cars left unlocked, and even clothes drying on the line if we thought they'd fit and were worth wearing. Tommy had once ripped off a blind man's cane at the park while the old guy had been getting a drink of water, just to show it off, pretending to have a limp the next day at school.
Another groan of the rotting porch planks: I was sure someone in the house was going to hear the noise. That, or notice we'd unscrewed the exposed light bulb that hadbeen illuminating the rear of their house. I paused for just a second, causing another whispered outburst from Tommy, and then carefully hefted two more cartons of bottles, silently cursing the last carton that waited for me.
"Why don't you just crawl?" Tommy's sarcastic tones mocked out of the night as he relieved me of my tinkling burden. "How many more?"
I resisted the urge to punch him right in the face. But I was only scared, not completely out of my freaking mind. "Last trip," I whispered back.
"Last trip," he repeated, exaggerating the fear in my voice.
I heard him telling Rupe to roll, leaving me to follow them with the last of our bounty. Four steps there and another four back, a few gut-wrenching creaks that probably couldn't be heard even a few feet away, and I was hopping off the porch and trotting after them on silent feet. Another Mission Impossible episode lived and survived. They were worth five cents apiece and ten for the big guys. We'd hide the carts in Rupe's garage until we had them filled-which was just another job or two away-and then head for the Kroger to trade glass for cash.
Tommy was humming M.I.'s theme song as I approached. Rupe was just a slim shadow walking on the far side of the cart. I placed my carton atop the rest and fell in with them, glancing nervously behind us as we made our way through the glow of the lone streetlight brightening the alley. Our late night passage set a dog to barking on Rupe's side of the alley, adding to my trepidation.
"Stop being such a pussy," said Tommy, loud as you please. "What you got to worry about? I can outrun anybody who tries to catch us, and you run faster than me." Tommy nudged Rupe with the cart, garnering a dark glare seen even in the night. "It's old limpalong here who ought to be scared."
That was true. I doubted anybody could catch Tommy or me, but just about everybody could catch Rupe. He was the tallest of the three of us, but definitely the weakest and by leaps and bounds the slowest. He walked with a slight limp that became more pronounced when he tried to run. His mom claimed it was because he'd broken his leg as a toddler and had to spend two months in a body cast. Tommy claimed it was just because Rupe was white. But I was white too, and I could beat our Negro amigo by a step in shorter races and completely trounce him in anything longer than a city block.
But Tommy didn't run from much of anything. He was big for his age and strong for his size, already formidable at fourteen. He stood five feet nine inches and probably weighed a buck fifty. On top of that, he'd been held back a year, so even though we were all in the seventh grade, he was supposed to be heading for the high school next year. Add a volatile temper to his solid frame, and you had a contender for the roughest boy in the middle school. He was easily one of the toughest in our neighborhood, at least among those younger than the teenage sect. Let's just say I was often glad he was my friend and not looking to pick on me.
Not that I had to fight much. I ran my mouth and talked a big game, but when it came right down to it I wasn't big enough to mix it up with any of the guys who would actually fight. If push came to shove I could take a few punches and even throw a few in the general direction of my opponent, but I usually wound up on the losing end of any confrontation. My best asset was my feet, which I had employed to flee many impending ass-whippings. My second-best defense against antagonists was Tommy Washington, who could fight and did, well and often.
My boy Rupe was church quiet and adept at avoiding almost every confrontation. He was polite and modest, and so meek it just wasn't any fun to pick on him. You could talk about his parents, his limp, his pointed nose, or make up just about anything you wanted to throw at him and still get nary a rise. If not for the trouble Tommy and I continued to bring down on him, Rupe would have been content to skate through life without a single shred of anything even remotely resembling excitement.
He was nervous now, repeatedly checking behind us to see if we were being pursued. As if the elderly couple we'd just ripped off would actually risk these alleys after midnight, just to regain some empty pop bottles worth a few bucks at most. I often wondered what it was that kept Thomas Rupe hanging out with us. (We called him Rupe because Tommy was Tommy and didn't like to be called Washington. That left Rupe as Rupe whether he liked it or not.) Rupe had a mother and a father, a decent enough place to live, and a world of hurt waiting to fall on him if he was to be caught doing anything like what he was doing at this very moment. Add the fact that his parents didn't exactly care for Tommy or me, and that made our tight friendships all the more risky.
Tommy's grades were terrible, and his behavior was borderline criminal. My grades were passable, but my attendance kept me threatened with summer school and juvenile hall almost daily. Well, at least they threatened me when I was actually at school. Rupe never skipped and always made the honor roll. And he never, ever purposely made his parents' lives more difficult. Rupe was what the teachers called a good kid. Like I said: I often wondered what drew the boy to us.
The cart started bouncing along with more clatter as we turned onto the alley running behind Rupe's place, due to the old uneven bricks that paved the way. Tommy slowed a bit to help calm our distraught friend's nerves, but couldn't stifle a chuckle. We couldn't help it. Neither of us had fathers around, and the thought of being afraid of our mothers was hilarious. In any case, there was no one about to hear our passage. We always planned our operations for weekday evenings, when most of our neighbors slept. Even those who didn't actually have jobs still went to sleep somewhat early if it wasn't a weekend.
"Quiet!" Rupe hissed as Tommy bumped the cart into his garage. It was a detached cinder block structure, far enough away from the house to make hearing us unlikely, but Rupe was still begging for caution. "Take it easy," he pleaded as he fumbled for the key to the lone door.
"Just open the door and shut up," warned Tommy.
He was always a little too hard on Rupe, too harsh concerning his fear of trouble with his parents. I sometimes felt Tommy was jealous of Rupe and his bond with his mother and father, but it was a sentiment I would never dare give voice to. Instead I kept my mouth shut and tried to help Rupe with the cartons as quietly as possible, while Tommy just glared at the both of us. When we were finished, Rupe locked the door and trotted toward home without a see ya later, and Tommy and I started back the way we'd come.
"A buck says he's in school in the morning, and not even late," said Tommy, his tone laden with the disdain reserved for those lame idiots who actually did homework and tried to please parents, teachers, and coaches.
"No bet," I replied. "I'll bet you five I'm not in school though." We both laughed at that, knowing without having to say it that he wasn't going to be at Central Middle School anytime today either. "You going home?"
Tommy nodded. "Yeah," he sighed. "Moms and her new dude need me to watch my little sister tomorrow. But I'm getting paid. Come on over when you get up."
Tomorrow was Friday. I rarely made it to school on Friday. "I'll be there," I said, confirming my bad habit.
We walked the blocks between our homes and Rupe's, who lived nearer the park. Here, in what was a respectable section of Columbus, some folks still tried to maintain their small city lots with pride. Rupe lived just off the circle, with its bricked roadways and curbs. Painted porches and trimmed lawns looked down on you from behind low wrought-iron fences, topped by blunted spikes that could easily be jumped over. It was an area we weren't welcome in unless we were mowing those lawns, raking leaves in the fall or shoveling snow in the winter.
Our more decrepit houses were only minutes away, but the trash and filth we were soon stepping around made it seem like another world. Broken-down cars lined the streets; some stood on blocks that hadn't been moved in months. Crushed cans and broken bottles were strewn along the curbs. Wadded-up cigarette wrappers and tossed butts littered the sidewalks. The alleys were dumping grounds for ruined furniture, bundled newspapers, torn trash bags full of clothes, useless engine parts, and every other kind of debris.
Even the night air couldn't disguise or subdue the reek of our alleys. The stench was a mixture of rotting garbage and spilled engine oil, discarded diapers and pooling animal waste. Many of the fences that once distinguished property lines now lay on their sides like dead carcasses, the twisted wires just waiting to snare your foot and send you sprawling. But we made our way through this without a thought, neither noticing nor caring about the poverty we lived in. We had just added a few bucks to our stash and tomorrow was Friday. And neither of us was going to school. Tonight life was good.
"Later," Tommy sent as we made his place.
The glow of a TV flickered in one of the upstairs bedrooms, but that didn't matter. Tommy came and went as he pleased. I heard him slam the screen door as he entered the kitchen in the rear of his house, an exclamation of that very sentiment. Tommy would be rummaging around his refrigerator by now, eating anything he wanted and taking a swig of whatever he might find. Milk or a Colt 45, it didn't matter much to Tommy. His mom kept a smaller locked fridge in her bedroom to hide the hard liquor and lunch meat, and her drugs.
Without Tommy strutting along beside me, the two blocks between his place and mine suddenly loomed more menacingly, the shadows deeper and the silence threatening. My step grew quicker, and a darting cat set me to jogging. I had a pretty decent act around my peers; I wasn't scared of my mom, and nobody could make me go to school or act respectful if I didn't want to. But when I was alone and in the dark, I realized abruptly that I was just another twelve- year-old street kid out where he shouldn't be. I hadn't made the next corner before I was outright hoofing it for home with those fleet feet of mine.
Home wasn't much in the way of a haven. Our house was right off the alley, which meant we were easily accessible to the prying eyes of every passerby. There were no windows on the first floor of the alley side of the house, but we were constantly finding footprints along the rear sidewalk and beneath the single kitchen window where someone had taken a stroll and a peek, probably checking to see if there was anything of value near at hand. My mother's current sometime-live-in boyfriend had taken to parking his car in the yard as close as possible to the back door, just to hinder the enthusiasm of would-be thieves.
I scooted around that car-a beat-up El Camino Leon was always planning to fix up to sell the next weekend-and tiptoed through the front door. Betty and Leon were crashed on the sofa bed, bathed in the white noise of the TV, which was now just crackling static. The artist in me couldn't help but notice the scene, and wonder how old Norman Rockwell would depict it, or name it. Betty and Leon's Cellulite Asses, I thought to myself.
My mother's threadbare robe was hiked up over her hip, exposing one nasty flank, and Leon was clothed in his normal pair of brown-stained saggy underpants. Both of them were overweight, and neither was prone to bathing. Leon was covered with a coat of shaggy, coppery hair that made the swell of his belly that much more pronounced. Their mouths were hanging open as they snored. Somewhere in that mass of flesh my mother's Chihuahua mix, Tiki, was huddled up against her, trembling even in sleep. Add the blackened skin of the soles of my mother's feet and toes, and the sight of her false teeth sitting right out in the open on the coffee table, and just maybe you can appreciate the picture.
I turned away, locked the door and flicked off the TV, then headed upstairs after draining the last of the Kool-Aid right out of the pitcher. My dog was scratching at the door before I reached the top of the steps, whining and excited. He jumped on me as soon as I let him out, and continued to pester me for attention while I peeked in on my younger brothers. Both were asleep amid a tangle of dingy sheets. I stepped over piles of dirty clothes and around the usual clutter of toys, shoes, and piecemeal furniture to push Terry, who was six, back onto the mattress he had halfway rolled off of. Chip, who was two, had balled up against the wall, the thumb he'd been sucking on now just barely fallen out of his mouth.
Benji-yeah, I was one of probably thousands of kids who named their dog after that movie-walked across the mattress to sniff at Chip, which roused him and got him noisily working on his thumb again. Terry moaned and jerked away from me after I rolled him back up off the floor, then tucked a hand into his underpants and fell motionless again. Benji jumped off the mattress and followed me back to my room, nuzzling me again for the affection he'd yet to receive.
After turning my desk light on, I rubbed his floppy ears while he kept trying to lick me in the face. In my defense, my dog did look a lot like the one from the movie. He was a little bigger, but he had the same droopy-mustache hair and the tangle of curls hiding his eyes. And he was just as smart. He sat, rolled over, caught balls, played tug of war and hide and seek. If you pointed your fingers at him like a gun and said bang! he fell over and pretended to be dead, except he kept looking up at you with his eyes wide open, waiting to play some more.
I'd had him since I was nine or ten. My aunt Kathy in Indiana had given him to me on my birthday, and the mutt had been my best friend ever since. We slept together, ate the same food- often right off the same plate, bowl, or spoon-and were only apart when absolutely necessary. I'd lost him the last time my mother had been incarcerated for passing bad checks. It had only been for a few months, but the bill to get him back from the kennel he'd been boarded at was far more money than Betty would ever willingly give up for a dog, especially since he was my dog. Fortunately, my tears aroused pity from the wife of the guy who owned the place, and she let me have him with only a promise of payments from my mother. Payments that kind woman never saw. But I'm sure she knew that just as well as Betty did, even as the lies were passing her lips.
Excerpted from Betty's Child by Donald R. Dempsey Copyright © 2009 by Donald R. Dempsey. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Betty's Child" is the tortured Donny Davis. This very moving autobiographical memoir by Donald R. Dempsey presents the compelling story of how Donny deals with and survives his mother's severe emotional illness, mental and physical abuse,and various crises and traumas. This book is honest and raw, from the dedication and acknowledgments all the way through to the last page (p.469), it grabs the reader and doesn't let her go. It is full of humor, pathos, and no holds barred dialog. Get comfortable, fasten your seat belt and get ready for a roller coaster ride. You won't be comfortable for long, but you'll be thrilled you went on the ride. Highly recommended.