Later that day, I was sitting on our front porch waiting. Right on time, Sam arrived and without even looking flung our paper toward our house. It landed right in front of the porch. He was riding away when I called out.
He stopped and biked back to me. I’d climbed down the steps and was waiting for him. “That was a really nice thing you did for me ’n Riley today. I wanted you to know how I felt about that. To say thanks.”
He smiled at me and almost blushed. He looked down for a moment, and it looked to me like he wanted to say something but didn’t know how. Then he looked like maybe he did.
“Travis, I know you ’n Riley were watching us, seeing what we were doing. I just wondered, uh, what you thought about that. If you, maybe, got, uh, excited?”
His eyes were bright and looked, well, hopeful. He seemed to have something on his mind, and maybe that question had something to do with it. I watched him looking at me, looking like some of the dogs I sometimes walked when I was putting their leashes on, all eager and excited, and thought about what Sam had asked, and suddenly there was a little quivery feeling in my stomach. Or just below it. But that feeling, with Sam there causing it, while it was making me excited, it was making me a little uncomfortable as well. I think he was asking if I’d like to do the sort of thing he’d been doing at the river. That he’d like to do it with me. And while maybe I would like it a little, that old cautious part of me was screaming in my ear. So I said, “Sam, we were fishin’. We really didn’t see anything.”
He was watching me, reading my eyes, and I was sure he knew I was lying. I’m not a good liar. Just ask Ma, she’ll tell you. But I saw his eyes change. If anything, they got softer, and in a voice that wasn’t eager any longer but actually more supportive than anything else, maybe the voice you’d use to speak to a younger brother, he said, “If you ever have any questions about anythin’, you know, like embarrassin’ ones you want to know but aren’t sure you can ask, you can ask me. I won’t tell anyone, either.”
Then he got on his bike and was off, with me shouting after him, “Thanks again, Sam,” and still feeling sort of funny inside. Funny like maybe I just missed out on something. But happy that I did.
That night was the real awakening for me and Riley’s fascination with sex. Before that, we’d been boys, innocent and naïve as children. We knew about stiffies, but not really. We’d heard lots of dirty jokes but hadn’t understood a lot of them. That day at the river opened our eyes, and that night, just the two of us, we learned a lot more. Learned what it felt like to rub ourselves like the boys at the river had done. Learned what it felt like to touch each other. Learned the excitement of it all. Nothing’s ever the same after that. A boy has a whole new feeling about life’s possibilities. That’s how it was for us. A new chapter in our lives began.
In a way, it was funny that it happened like that. Because not only was that summer an awakening for us but for the town as well. We’d been a sleepy little Southern town. Everyone knew each other; few people locked their doors at night; kids went wherever they wished with mostly no supervision at all. The town was like many small towns, as innocent as me ’n Riley had been. We grew up some that summer; so did the town.
We learned a whole lot more than what you could do with stiffies.
Me ’n Riley were on the back porch the next morning, sitting on our glider out there, moving slowly back and forth as I kept up rocking us, my foot hanging off the edge pushing against the floor. We weren’t very active because it had been a long night. We’d learned many things but could sum them up just saying that not all the changes that get lumped together with the word ‘puberty’ are bad. Hearing about what we were to expect explained by an elementary-school teacher, well, it sounded like it could be pretty bad and nothing to look forward to. But we’d learned different last night. Some of those changes are pretty darn good!
In fact, I was only using the energy of my foot because the air wasn’t moving at all and so we had to make our own breeze. Hot, hot, hot. And so humid our sweat wasn’t drying. It just sat there on our bare torsos like we’d been swimming, which we hadn’t.
While we were sprawled on that glider, I saw another row of blocks go up on the wall. The wall was taller than I was now. I wondered how high Mr. Condon planned on building it.
“You guys look like you didn’t get any sleep at all last night. Too hot?” My ma was standing in the doorway, looking out at us. I didn’t dare glance at Riley to see if he was blushing.
“Yes ’m,” I answered and yawned.
“Well, better get up and move around some. I got a job for you.”
“A job? I’m on vacation!”
Ma laughed. “This is a boy-sized job, just right for you ’n Riley. I’m making a batch of cookies, and I want you to carry them over to Mr. Condon’s house with me as a ‘welcome-to-the-neighborhood’ offering. You need to be with me so he knows who you are and where you come from. The cookies will be ready in about fifteen minutes. They’re cooling on the counter now. I’ll box them up and you need to be ready by then.”
OK, this was good. I’d never even seen the man, and he was building that wall, and maybe I could ask him why. We didn’t need any wall back there!
Riley looked over at me and mouthed, ‘killer dogs.’ I ignored him.
Ma went, and me ‘n Riley went with her. I was carrying the cookies in one of her fancy gift cans. She saved the cans we got at Christmas or Thanksgiving with cookies or candies in them and used them when she made cookies to give away. The can I was carrying had a picture of a horse-drawn sleigh on it and a woods with snow on the ground. We were in Mississippi in the summer, and it was about a zillion degrees out. Ma had made me wear a tee shirt and comb my hair, so, overdressed for the day, I was sweating up a storm. Riley, bare to the waist like always, with his long, dark brown hair as messy as hair can be, kept looking at the sweat running down my neck and giggling.
We had to walk all the way around the block. We could have just walked to the back of our yard and then skirted that wall, walking through the backyard next to Mr. Condon’s yard, but Ma said that would be presumptuous. Whatever that meant. I guessed it meant walking twice as far as we should have in that heat all dressed up like I was. That might not have been the dictionary definition, but that’s what it meant that day.
We finally got to Mr. Condon’s house. It still looked like the Hendersons’ house to me, except now there was a wall being built around it. The back side was finished, and now two side walls were going up. Those Mexican guys were wearing long-sleeved shirts, and they were sweating too, but it didn’t look like they minded it as much as I did. They smiled when they saw me. I recognized them by now and they did me, as well. Ma, being who she was, had had me deliver them glasses of lemonade now and then in the hottest part of the afternoon. Maybe that’s why they smiled now when they saw me.
Ma walked up to the front door. I was right behind her, and Riley was a step back from me. She knocked on the door.
“You could ring the bell,” I said.
“It seems friendlier to knock,” she said.
“Be sure to ask about the wall,” I reminded her. I’d been telling her that all the way over here, but she sometimes forgot things, and it didn’t hurt to remind her again.
We waited, and then the door opened.
Mr. Condon was kinda oldish, a small guy, and he smiled at Ma, then gave me ’n Riley a glance. Didn’t look all that friendly to me, but that might have been because Riley chose that moment to whisper killer dogs in my ear, and maybe he overheard him a little. Maybe that was why he looked suspicious.
“Yes?” he said, stepping out onto the stoop and pulling the door closed behind him, smiling again now that he was addressing Ma.
“Hello!” Ma said, smiling. “I’m Missus Todd, and this is my son Travis and his mostly naked friend Riley. We live right behind you, and I thought we should introduce ourselves. Travis?”
I stepped a little more out from behind Ma and into Mr. Condon’s view and stretched out my hands, offering him the can. “Hello, sir,” I said. “These are for you. They’re cookies.”
He reached out and took them, and finally smiled at me, too. Ma spoke up, saying, “They’re still warm from the oven, I’d bet.”
I guess Riley felt a little left out because he stepped forward then and said, “They’re really good, too. She makes ’em best.”
At that, Mr. Condon’s face seemed to soften some. He opened the tin lid, sniffed, and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Todd. These smell wonderful. I’m really sorry I can’t invite you all in, but there are boxes all over and nowhere to sit down. They haven’t brought the furniture yet. And there’s packing paper strewn everywhere. I’m still messing around unpacking boxes, you know?”
“Oh, that’s fine. We didn’t want to be any trouble. We just wanted to introduce ourselves, you know, so if you see these boys on their bikes, you’ll know who they are. And to tell you where we live and that you can call on us if you need anything. Welcome to the neighborhood!”
He smiled again, then offered the tin to me ’n Riley. “You look like boys in need of a cookie. Help yourselves.” He looked at Ma and winked.
Riley beat me to the can. He always did love Ma’s cookies.
“Well, nice to have met you,” Ma said, turning. Mr. Condon repeated the words to us and then was back inside his house.
“He seems like a nice man,” Ma said. Then we walked home. The long way around again. That pissed me off some, but not as much as it did that we’d never asked about the wall.
I had got tired of me ’n Riley moping around the yard come Saturday, out-of-our-gourd bored with the heat and inactivity.
“But we ain’t got nothin’ to do,” Riley groused when Pa told us to stop sitting around and get to doing something.
“Sure you do. Ride your bikes, go for a hike, get up a basketball game with friends. Have a spitting contest. Throw rocks off the bridge. You’re 11, for cripes sake! Kids your age can have fun sitting by the road and betting on whether more blue or brown cars will go by. Then you start arguing if that one was brown or tan, and then you’re wrestling in the grass and find a four-leaf clover and end up combing through the grass with your fingers seeing who can find the most unusual bug living in there. What do you mean, you’re bored?”
“But we are!”
Riley could argue with my pa as easily as he could with me. That was another reason I liked him so much.
Pa harrumphed. “The whole world is out there for you. Go swimming. Go fishing. Go fly a kite. Go look at girls.”
I scrunched up my face at that last one and looked over at Riley, who was yawning. “He gets like this when it’s too hot, Riles,” I said, mostly for Pa’s benefit. “Just ignore him.” Then I jumped up laughing, dodging out of the way when Pa took a swipe at me.
“We could ride out to a pond and wet a line,” Riley said, stretching, then flopping back down in the grass. “I could do with a catfish fry-up, but it’s too darn hot.”
“The bass will be sleeping,” I argued, not all that excited about biking out to a pond either, and starting to argue just for the heck of it. Hot weather is good for arguing. “But if it’s catfish you want, we might get one or two of them.”
My pa was back to reading the paper with his second cup of coffee, totally ignoring us now. Or at least that’s what I thought, but when I got up to go look for our fishing stuff, he lowered the paper, looked over the top of it at us, and said, “You want a fry-up of catfish, you’d better land more than two of them. You better get enough for all of us. Ma and I get first dibs at the platter, and if there’s just two, you guys’re going hungry.” Then he laughed.
Riley got up, so I guessed it was decided, heat or no heat, we were going fishing. We went into the garage and picked up some fishing gear and grabbed our bikes. There were any number of small ponds outside town. “How about Foster’s?” I asked Riley, and he nodded. I knew why he’d agreed. Foster’s Pond had some woods growing right up close to its western edge, meaning we could fish from the shade once the sun was west of us some. Neither of us wanted to be in the sun ’less we had to.
It was almost an hour’s ride, the last part on a dirt road and then across a field. We were drenched in sweat by the time we arrived. We dumped the bikes at the edge of the field rather than walk them across while carrying rods and stuff. We found a place with long grass where we could lay them down and they wouldn’t be seen. Not that anyone would steal them anyway. That just didn’t happen much around here.
I’d brought a trowel, and while Riley was getting the reels and lines set on the poles and fitting up the leaders and bobbers and sinkers and hooks on the lines, I was off in the woods just a short ways, digging up worms. Didn’t take long. We had enough rain in the summer that the ground in the woods was always moist, and the worms were aplenty and near the surface.
I heard a skittering sort of noise back into the woods a ways and turned my head. You never knew what sorts of creatures might live here, and I liked to see the wild ones. We had deer and bobcats and lynxes and rabbits and squirrels and who knew what all. I kept watching and thought I saw some small creature, not much bigger than maybe a cat, sort of dart past a fallen tree, but then it was gone, and I couldn’t even be sure I’d seen it, it had been that quick. I walked over to where I’d seen it and looked around. Nothing. I had no idea what it might have been. Or if it had been real.
Some people thought all the woods around town and especially this one were spooked, but that was nonsense. I understood it, though. Even walking into this woods, I always got a creepy sort of feeling. The smell of damp earth, the light filtering through the leaves in changing patterns, some of the sounds, like the ones coming from old trees when they creaked with the wind, the gloominess of the place and it’s chill after being in the sun—they all added up. I went back to worm-digging but did it just inside the edge of the woods, staying out of the place as much as possible. I told myself it was because I wouldn’t have to walk as far that way. Made good sense.
The fishing was better than we’d expected it to be. We got a whole mess of catfish, more ’n enough for supper. One was kind of small. “That little one we kept, that’s for you, Riley,” I teased. “Just your size.”
“Hey, I can out-eat you any day of the week,” he said, acting pissed that I’d make such a statement. “Catfish is my specialty, and your ma makes the best.”
How can you argue with a guy who compliments your ma’s cooking? I couldn’t, and so I shut up. We rode back to town with the fish in our saddle bags. I knew enough to bring them back already cleaned. Ma had a fit if I didn’t.
Ma did a mean catfish feast with a cornmeal coating that fried up real nice and hushpuppies and collard greens. I’d heard her say the traditional way to cook greens in the South was to boil ’em for an hour or two. She didn’t do that. She sautéed them in a little butter and garlic just till they were tender and shrunk about to half the size they’d been. Served ’em with lemon wedges. Now I was a boy, and boys don’t much like most veggies, especially the green kind, but her collards were worth eating. Served them with hushpuppies, too, and I about exploded when I was done with that meal, too full by half.