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You might have heard about the time my granny got arrested on the first day of school. Maybe you were one of them pie-eyed kids she almost ran down with her 1984 sky blue Toyota truck, me riding shotgun. When Granny pulled up on the sidewalk like it was our own personal parking spot, everybody was yelling for them kids to get out of the way, but nobody could hear a thing over the blast of Granny's radio and her singing at the top of her lungs.
I sat in the police car while an officer made Granny walk a straight line with her finger on her nose, like maybe she'd been driving drunk, which she hadn't been. I wanted like anything to switch on the flashing lights, but the cop in the driver's seat seemed to guess what I had on my mind. "What's your name, son?" he asked, letting me know he was paying attention.
I looked at my reflection in his mirrored sunglasses. "Tobin McCauley."
The cop grinned and jerked his thumb toward Granny. "Is she a McCauley, too? Because that would explain everything right off the bat."
"She's the mother-in-law to a McCauley," I told him, my fingers still itching to hit that flashing-lights button.
"Close enough," is what the cop replied. I guess he meant anyone in spitting distance of being related to one of my brothers or my sister, for that matter had a good chance of having a criminal heart. Not that they ever got busted for anything too bad, mostly petty stuff like shoplifting and being a public nuisance. And Shane and Summer were so old now that they hardly ever did anything worse than jaywalk. It'd been years since Summer had lifted a lipstick from Eckerd drugstore, or Shane had gone hot-rodding the wrong way down Six Forks Road.
The cop eyed me suspiciously, remembering that I was a McCauley, too. "You get in much trouble?"
I tried to look tough. I'd stolen a few paper clips in my time, a pencil or two, been made to stay after school for cheating on a test. Most the stuff I did, I did it because teachers seemed to expect it from me. If I didn't commit at least a few minor crimes, then they'd go on about how good I was, what a nice change from the other McCauleys they'd taught in years past. I hated school bad enough without the teachers making a fuss over me.
"Yeah, I get in trouble," I told the cop, puffing out my chest. "They had to put a special guard on me last year."
The cop gave me the quick once-over. "Bet there's not a prison built that could hold you, son," he said, then started choking on his own laughter, his face glowing red as a bowl of tomato soup.
Outside, Granny was making her case to the other officer. "I'm all this boy's got, 'cause his daddy's good for nothing," I heard her say. "His mama passed on when he was seven. Somebody's got to take care of him."
"Yes, ma'am," the police officer agreed politely. "But that doesn't mean you don't have to follow proper parking procedures."
Granny shoved a piece of Juicy Fruit in her mouth. "You like that Alan Jackson? KISS Country Radio don't play nothing but that Alan Jackson, it seems like. I think he's right good looking, but you can't see him on the radio, now can you?"
"That's right, ma'am," the officer said. He turned toward the squad car and rolled his eyes.
After I got booted out of the car, I watched from the flagpole as they drove Granny away. I was sorry they left off the siren and the lights. I knew that inside that car Granny was sorry, too.
Just the day before, my brother Patrick had tried to talk me out of riding to school with Granny. He'd found me on the carport, throwing clumps of dirt at the chain-link fence that separated our yard from the gas station next door. The owner's cat was staring at me from out beside the free air pump, but I ignored it. I don't like cats as a rule.
"Tomorrow's your first day of seventh grade," Patrick said, pulling up an overturned paint bucket and taking a seat. I nodded. It was a dumb thing for him to say. I could have said something dumb back, like, "Yeah, and tomorrow's your first day of ninth grade, big whoop," but I wasn't in the mood.
Patrick scooped up a handful of crumbled concrete and aimed it at the cat, which was now sniffing at the fence like it was thinking about coming over for a visit. "If I was you, I'd take the bus to school," he said. "Granny's been driving you since you were in second grade. You've got to figure that's long enough."
"Don't want to take the bus," I told him. "I tried it once, but the exhaust fumes turned me green."
Patrick shook his head. "Beats everybody seeing Granny drop you off at the front of the school. Seventh grade's different from sixth grade. People start to notice it when your crazy grandmother drives you around all over town. You want them to think you're weird, too?"
I picked at a piece of rubber coming off of my tennis shoe. People already thought I was weird. Between Granny and my juvenile delinquent brothers and sister and the fact that I lived in an old brick shoe box on a two-lane highway instead of in some shiny new suburban home, I didn't have much hope of them thinking otherwise. "I don't care what them fart blowers think," I told Patrick. "Why's it matter so much to you?"
Patrick stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets. Just then the gas station cat wormed its way through a hole in the fence and made a beeline for the carport. Patrick kicked at it and missed. "I don't care if people like you or not."
"So why are you here talking to me?"
He didn't say anything for a minute, just looked left, then right, like he was in a spy movie and the enemy was nearby. Finally he cleared his throat and said, "Daddy said he'd buy me a Big Mac and Super Size fries if I told you not to take rides from Granny anymore."
I snorted. "Daddy don't care who gives me a ride to school. He's just looking to make Granny mad."
Patrick grinned. "Man, them two will give each other hell till one of them keels over dead."
My dad and Granny had been feuding for as long as I could remember. The only thing they ever had in common was my mom, and once she was gone, they didn't even have that. My sister, Summer, said they were both so mad about my mom dying they'd spend the rest of their lives taking it out on each other.
The gas station cat snaked its way around my ankles like it thought now maybe we could be friends. I scratched its ears without really meaning to. I didn't want to be friends with that cat or anybody else I could think of. Didn't want to go to school the next day either, especially since it was still August and way too hot for thinking.
Mostly I just wanted to ride around in Granny's truck and think about going camping out in the woods. I'd been camping two times in my life, and those trips were stuck on rerun in my brain. Whenever my mind needed somewhere to go, I pushed the camping-trip button on the inside of my head, and all the sudden I was putting river rocks in a circle to make a campfire. Made my whole body get peaceful remembering it.
After I'd watched the police car head out to the main road, I made my way down the hall to my first-period English class, going as slow as I could. I knew it would be a letdown after Granny's arrest, and I was right about that, son. Soon as I pushed open the door, a whole room of snot-nosed kids starting giggling and twittering like flea-bitten parrots. Somebody called out, "Nice parking job!"
I ignored their sorry butts. The teacher motioned me over to a desk front and center and then checked her clipboard.
"Are you Tobin?" she asked. "Tobin McCauley?"
She pronounced it wrong, though, more like McCully. "That ain't how you say it," I told her, taking my seat. "It's McCauley that rhymes with holly."
"Ain't!" a low voice croaked like a bullfrog from the back of the room, and then there was a chorus of bullfrogs calling "ain't, ain't, ain't," with a smart-aleck cricket chirping "redneck, redneck" behind it. A whole different voice, a boy's, only it was pitched high and singsongy, called out, "Ain't ain't a word!"
The teacher ignored the frogs and the cricket, but the last comment got her attention. "What makes you think it's not a word?" she asked. She walked to her desk, picked up a dictionary, and headed to the back row, where she handed it to a jughead named Cody Peters. "Look it up and tell me if it's in there."
Cody took the book from her. He didn't look too happy about having his little joke turned into an assignment. "I'll do what I can, ma'am," he said, this time in a slow, countrified voice. "Ain't starts with a, right?"
That got a good laugh from the spit wads around the room. "Stop talking and start looking," the teacher told him. She leaned against the desk in front of him, her arms folded across her chest. Cody ruffled through a few pages, then ran his finger down a row of words. After a few seconds he looked up at the teacher, his face all full of mock wonder. "Gosh, gee, ma'am, it sure enough is right here."
The teacher took the book from him and snapped it shut. "So maybe ain't is a word after all," she said, sounding victorious. She turned as she passed by me and gave me a big wink, like the victory was mine, too.
I put my head on my desk. That's all I needed, a teacher who wanted to be my hero. I closed my eyes and pictured a river. I was walking across it in knee-high rubber boots, carrying a mess of fish in a net. I could see a tent on the other side, smoke rising from the campfire.
I fell asleep before I made it over. Next thing I knew, there was a crow cawing in my ear, only it turned out to be the bell ringing for second period. I stood up slow, yawning my way back into the seventh grade and out to the hallway, where the rest of my useless day was waiting for me.
Copyright © 2005; by Frances O'Roark Dowell