Book Excerpt: West of Sienna

2 Jan

West of Sienna

 

© Copyright 2010

by Roger White

 

Registered with WGA West


 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay


Chapter One

 

        Andy is alive.

        I held the letter at arm’s length, requisite for reading anything on a page. I read it again. I found it odd that in this day of e-mail and laptops and text messages that Scooter’s letter was handwritten. His penmanship was no better than when we’d been best of friends — more than 40 years ago.

        I found my flashlight and climbed to the attic. It was dim and stifling, and the air was thick with the aroma of things old, lost, forgotten.

        Andy is alive.

        I searched, still knowing where to find it. Knowing the stir of paralyzing images that would attend. It was in my awards box. I indulged myself at the box, fondling the favorites, reliving the track meets, breaking the tape with each medal and trophy dusted.

        It was at the bottom of the box, tucked into an envelope, the envelope folded into a watchbox. I had made a desperate, half-hearted attempt to hide it away, somehow hoping I would forget.

        The size of a quarter, once a shiny pewter, the medal was now a blotched relic. A faded ribbon of red, white, and blue dangled, attached with a cheap plastic ring. I turned the medal over in my hand, rubbing it with my thumb.

2nd Place

440-Yard Run

6th-Grade Relays

May 12, 1967

        I was the fastest boy in my class, had been for years. By sixth grade, when the annual track and field meet came in spring, lunch money rode on who would come in second. My event was the 440-yard run — a quarter-mile. One time around the track.

        As the days counted down to the meet my sixth-grade year, I was bolstered by the back slapping of my friends. Gary, you got first locked up, but I’m getting second. You’ll be in the Olympics someday. Nobody ever beats Gary Tolliver. I fielded the praise like any normal kid. I grew cocky.

        Weeks before the meet, a new boy moved to town and joined our class. I saw his name on the list of boys signed up for the 440-yard run. That was the first time I noticed him, as I sized him up. He was quiet and solitary. His name was Andy Reyes. I pointed out to Scooter the queer shape of Andy Reyes. Such a tiny thing, with head and ears too large for his frame. He looked like an anemic adult, misshapen and miniature. Another thing: He was left-handed. His right arm ended in a stump just below the elbow.

        The season Scooter and I came to know Andy has never left my mind. It was the summer I turned thirteen and somehow reached second on that awkward base path of sex, on which adolescent boys are forever stumbling and caught stealing. It was the summer of best friends. It was the time of innocence — and of a terror, deep and black.

        Spring had come early that year, and the days and nights were timid and pleasant. This was merely a portent of a short, furiously hot summer, according to the front-porch meteorological experts of West Sienna. The old men predicted without fail that too much of anything good meant something bad. They were usually right.

        West Sienna, ninety miles west northwest of Austin, was tucked deep into the Texas Hill Country — geographically, historically, and emotionally removed from the remarkable events of the time that were reshaping America’s psyche. The closest the community came to the ’60s was the time Jargus Webb accused his neighbor and longstanding enemy Dewey Hempstead of slipping LSD into Webb’s cattle tank. Jargus was a taciturn old straight-razor of a man whose only regular appearance in town came at the end of each month, when he sat in the third chair in Taylor’s Barber Shoppe for a mostly imaginary trim back and sides. He would sit and read Time magazine, occasionally pausing to give onlookers a hard-boiled glare and make clucking noises in his throat. One edition of Time had apprised old Jargus of the country’s current appetite for controlled substances — mainly the counterculture’s drug of choice, acid. It was the year of free love and dropping out. The next week, Jargus watched with horror as, one by one, his big Santa Gertrudis cows drank from his tank and proceeded to drop out all over his pasture. It took a pickup truck full of neighbors and two Concho County sheriff’s deputies to convince Jargus that Dewey Hempstead hadn’t doped his prize cattle. The cause was discovered to be a leak in a natural gas line that ran under Webb’s cattle tank.

        The fact that West Sienna was out of step with the rest of the state and the nation came as no revelation to the town’s citizens. That’s why most of them were here in the first place. It was community heritage to not fit in. Two weeks after Texas joined the Confederacy, the original town of Sienna voted on seceding from Texas. The motion to secede was defeated by a two-to-one margin, so one-third of Sienna’s population — about 200 people — picked up and moved several miles northwest. There they raised a Union flag and called themselves the Free State of West Sienna. In a prelude to the larger disagreement, the men, boys, and some of the women of Sienna promptly attacked. One West Siennean was killed by a blow to the head with a shovel, and the Union flag was ripped down and burned.

        Every West Sienna citizen knew the emotional history of the town by heart. But it wasn’t passion or natural selection that kept the town on the map. It was the Missouri-Pacific railroad, which pushed through in the 1890s, on a line that roughly followed the northern property line of the farm and vineyard owned by Jargus Webb’s grandfather.

        Beyond comfortable reach of the Missouri-Pacific, Old Sienna lost out to its contrary offspring and gradually melted into the Texas bluebonnets by the turn of the century. An old church and the shells of four or five irregular dwellings still stood as the original community’s epitaph. A worn dirt path was all that connected West Sienna to its dead mothertown.

        In April of our sixth-grade year, Scooter and I rode our bikes to Old Sienna to explore the ghost town’s peculiar church. It was a long rectangle of a building, the wood intact but sun-faded to a weak gray-brown. Small shards and pieces remained of the stained glass that had adorned the church’s windows. There were two windows, one on either long side of the church. Boards had been placed over the windows to cover them, and they had been nailed in place from the inside. Two-by-fours had been bolted across the big front double-doors and the single back door of the church.

        We had just convinced ourselves of our resolve to get inside when a low rumble welled from deep within the building. We clutched each other in white fear. We were back on our bikes, pedaling furiously for home, before we said a word. The whole place had seemed stale somehow. Rotten.

        We had heard the story about Pepper Ellard and the church, but Scooter and I were determined to see for ourselves. The story had been around long before we were born.

        I found my mind drifting back to the church often as the days slowly ticked toward summer that year. But Mrs. Barger was always there to pull me back.

        She popped me hard on my right ear.

        Mrs. Barger was our eighth-period English teacher. She had liver spots on her arms, teeth that clicked, but she had perfected the art of cupping her hand so that a tight slap to the ear induced acute tinnitus for days.

        “Mr. Tolliver.” Surname. Trouble.

        “Yes, ma’am.”

        I tried to strike a note of humility, not quite groveling. I rubbed the violated ear.

        “Since we appear to be so preoccupied with the goings on outside the window, we must know all there is to know about the gerund.”

        I did not know all there was to know about the gerund. I spent fifteen humiliating minutes at the chalkboard. Scooter and Bibby Cantrell, who sat next to him, took turns making faces at me and flipping me the finger. I discreetly returned the gesture by pretending to scratch my back with a middle digit.

        Mrs. Barger eventually sent me back to my seat with an admonition to excel in areas of endeavor other than track and field. She thought I was daydreaming about next week’s class relays.

        Scooter laughed loudly at the comment, and I punched him as I walked by to my seat.

        “And if you hit Mr. Travis again, you’re taking a trip down the hall, young man.”

        Scooter Travis was a teller of tales, a master of the Lady of Venus pinball game at Dairy Twin, a good wide receiver, and my best friend. He had a small triangle patch — a bald pink scar on the back of his head — and an occasional stutter, both the result of an ill-timed lightning strike. I suppose any collision between a bolt of lightning and one’s skull is ill-timed, but this one was especially unfortunate. We were in fourth grade, playing a pick-up game of football with the usual gang, and we were tied, 28-28. I was quarterback and Scooter was receiver on the play that would have broken the game open.

        It had been raining off and on all day. The worn practice field next to the high school was slop, ideal for us. Forrest Scoggins was covering Scooter on the play, and when I saw Forrest slip down in the mud, I knew we had a touchdown. Scooter was running a post pattern, straight over the middle, and I had lofted Scooter a high, slow spiral. He caught the ball and was heading for the end zone when the entire sky went white, a flashbulb horizon. I didn’t have time to cringe. A great electric finger touched a light tower of the school football stadium next to us. The bolt splintered, sending a snaking shard to reach down and slap Scooter Travis, still galloping to glory.

        We thought he was dead. Scooter lay on the end zone line, knocked cold and his head smoking, as seven young boys huddled over him in awe. Everyone was scared to touch him, so Bibby Cantrell tied his belt to one of Scooter’s legs and we dragged him to the nearest house.

        Scooter insisted he didn’t remember anything, but I grilled him mercilessly for weeks, trying to find out if he crossed the end zone before he lost the ball. I refused to give up the argument that we scored and won the game, but Forrest Scoggins and the other opposing players said no way. We finally compromised and agreed it was game called on account of God.

        It was Wednesday, which meant riding home with Scooter’s father. Mr. Travis had Wednesdays off, so he would roar into the Jane D. Patrick Junior High parking lot with tires squealing and the top down on his ’67 Pontiac. The principal hated it and had twice warned Mr. T of police intervention if he didn’t slow down. But Mr. T worked closely with Sheriff Tommy Dale and the Concho County Patrol, so the worst penalty he got was some ribbing from Sheriff Dale that he was trying to impress the cheerleaders, with the wife gone and all. Scooter’s mother was an Army nurse, recently dispatched to South Vietnam.

        I was giving serious consideration to hitting Scooter on his cranium scar with a paper wad when the low, bubbling growl of his father’s GTO came from the parking lot.       

        “That’s why Gary was looking outside, Mrs. Barger,” Melissa Acton whined. “Gary can’t wait for Scooter’s father, so him and Scooter can ride in his hot rod and break the speed limit.”

        “So Scooter and he can ride in his hot rod and break the speed limit. Thank you, Melissa. Scooter, it would be appreciated if you would remind your father of the speed limit in school zones.”

        Scooter’s face reddened. Melissa Acton looked at Scooter and me, puckering her face with malevolent satisfaction.

        In the hall, we watched Melissa and her friend Pam Stiles walk by to their lockers. Pam was easily the prettiest girl in class, the object of every boy’s crush. I asked Scooter about another expedition to Old Sienna. I’d thought of little else since that grinding sound rose from inside the church.

        “Funny you m-mentioned it,” Scooter said. “I’ve been thinking about that trip. Could’ve been a raccoon or something. I’ve been wanting to go back myself, but I didn’t know if you were scared or something.”

        “I’m not scared,” I said quickly. “I think it was a coyote.”

        “You were scared.”

        “The only reason I was ahead of you is because you’re a slowpoke.”

        We agreed on a campout in my back yard Friday night and an early departure Saturday. We sealed the agreement with the usual punch on the arm.

        In the back seat of the Pontiac convertible, Scooter’s father had stocked the ice chest with the usual: Pearl Beer in cans for him, and two Chocolate Soldier sodas in long bottles for us. The Wednesday afternoons of that spring had become ritual.

        We hefted our bottles in a toast and yelled at Forrest Scoggins, who was mounting his stingray bike for home.

        “Need a chauffeur?” Scooter yelled.

        Forrest smiled and shook his red head. “Cool car. The apes in the back sure ugly it up, though.”

        A block from the school, I noticed him.

        “Hey, look.”

        I pointed to a swirl of leaves blowing to the right of us. Walking down the side of the road crossing us was a gaunt little figure, tan-brown with coal hair. He was clothed in a faded plaid winter coat, toting three books. The coat was too big for him, too hot for the season. We watched in silent amazement as we passed, our paths perpendicular.

        The leaves crackled past him, and the boy turned with the sound. The leaves danced around him as the wind pushed them by, and he stabbed at them playfully with his free arm. He couldn’t catch them. His left arm was full of books, and his right arm had no hand.

        He saw us watching him, and he immediately pulled his right arm down and in. He hugged it against his body and let the coat sleeve swallow it. He turned sharply and walked on. He had been smiling so happily in his dance with the leaves that I had begun to smile with him. But when he saw us, in a split of an instant, he lost all expression, as if he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. I felt bad — vaguely guilty — that perhaps he thought I was laughing at him. I felt instantly, genuinely awful.

        “That’s that new kid. Andy Puh-Perez, or something.” Scooter was turned completely around to watch him to the very last. “He sits in the back of class and never says a word. Like he’s not even there.”

        I thumped Scooter on his lightning scar to make him turn around. “Reyes. It’s Andy Reyes.”

        “Ow. Butthole.”

        “Scooter Travis.” Scooter’s dad interjected some half-hearted parental discipline. I never quite understood Mr. T’s hierarchy of acceptable obscenity. We could say shit, but we couldn’t mention the orifice.

        “He’s entered in the 440 run next week,” I said. That’s how I remembered Andy Reyes’ name. I studied that list every day to keep apprised of my competition. He was the only unknown variable. Everyone else I could beat, except perhaps Gordon Shaver. He had failed once and was a year older.

        “Shoot. You’ll beat that-that little guy easy.” Scooter finally turned around. He took a final, long drink of his soda. “You could beat him with one hand tied behind … Ooh, I didn’t mean it that way.”

        “You’re sick, Scooter.”

        I went to hit him again, and he parried my moves. “No, really. I didn’t mean it.”

            Curiosity got the better of my tact, and I peeked back one last time. Our quiet classmate was running as fast as he could for home.

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