I was 13-years-old, just out of school for the summer and eager for every day to start, waiting for the dirty hot sweatiness of an Oklahoma June so I could head to the creek on my bike, plunge in and let the sun dry my skin. But in mid-May, the weather was still only lukewarm, and I put a T-shirt and overalls on before starting off for the newspaper office where Mom worked.
When I pulled my bike out of the garage, I noticed the back tire was flat.
“Oh well,” I thought. “It’s not that far to the other side of town. I’ll just walk.”
I had gone on that walk countless times before. Sometimes I went just to bug Mom, maybe bum a dollar or two. If I offered to get her some ice cream at the Dairy Boy just a half a block from the newspaper office, she would let me keep the change. I had a favorite route I liked to walk, and at first, everything went as usual.
I left the house and crossed the street, immediately coming upon two neighbors, Charlie and Jerry. Charlie was in his 40’s but he lived with his mom and Jerry, his mentally-retarded brother who was in his 20’s. They spent their days gathering pop bottles and aluminum cans and riding their bikes to the fishing hole behind the concrete plant where my dad worked.
“Howdy, Shaun,” Jerry said loudly. “Take a look at my new cotton-pickin’ fishin’ pole.”
I studied the pole appreciatively and made some oohing and awing sounds. “What are ya’ll up to today?”
“Goin’ fishin’,” Charlie said. “If we get some good ones, we’ll bring ‘em by and give ya a look-see.”
“Well, good luck and stay on the right side of the street,” I yelled as they rode away. I didn’t mind looking at their fish, as long as Jerry didn’t gut them while I was standing there. He had a tendency to BB-gun sparrows out of the trees in his front yard and step on their heads before twisting their bodies off. But he was a harmless man-child.
“Okey doke,” Jerry hollered back and waved, guffawing at something funny Charlie said or at a thought that angled through his head.
Four blocks later and I was going down Presbyterian Hill, named after the beautiful church that sat atop it. At the bottom, a truck slowly chugged up on my right and honked. I looked up from my pop bottle survey of the ditch and saw Dad in one of his concrete trucks. The mixer was spinning, so I figured he was going to pour a load somewhere. I waved and kept walking. The mixer’s gears shifted with a crunch and the sound faded away behind me.
At the corner grocery store, I cashed in the pop bottle I had found and bought some bubble gum from Mr. Yates.
“Glad school’s out?” he asked as he handed me my change.
“Sure am,” I said. “Now it just needs to get hot enough so I can stand that creek water.”
Through the glass door I could see my aunt moving rototillers into order in front of the Otasco she and Uncle Lawrence owned. As I came out of the store, she called my name and good-naturedly advised me to stay out of trouble.
I crossed Main Street and started down the alley behind Phillips Propane. Fresh gravel had been poured and my bare feet began to sting. I tried to walk faster and hop just a little to ease the pain. A car turned into the alley behind me and I moved even faster but didn’t turn around. Suddenly a yellow car pulled up alongside me and slowed to match my pace. The window rolled down.
“Hey there. How you doing?” a middle-aged man in a blue business suit asked.
Unable to be so impolite as to ignore him, I mumbled, “Okay,” and looked away, kept walking.
He was silent for a minute, his car still creeping along beside me. With one glance, I noticed a beer can resting between his legs. He had short brown hair and a wide, round white face. The radio was softly playing some slow country song. The back seat of the car had one of those bars across it and several suits hanging on it.
“You wanna screw?” he asked, smiling, then added, “I’ll pay you for it.”
I stared at the trash can at the end of the alley, understanding what he was saying, not believing it. A few more yards and I would be in the brightness of the gas station’s parking lot. I could hear people there laughing. The car moved an inch closer to me. I walked faster, something other than my mind moving me stiff-legged away. I jammed my fists into my pockets, thinking, just a few more feet, just a few more feet.
The man turned down the radio to say something else when a milk truck sighed into the alley behind us (yes, yes) and the car carefully drove away from me, its tires spinning gravel up at my knees.
I left the alley and crossed a parking lot, then an abandoned field, and finally arrived at the driveway of the Mayes County Chronicle. The front door was open and I could see Mom leaning over a paste-up board and smoothing the hair away from her face.
I stood in the ditch watching her, looking at my dirty feet and hands, clothes, skin, hair, legs, and listening to the steady, violent crunch of tires on gravel.