My best friend when I was growing up in rural Mississippi in the early 1960s was a boy named Frankie Mixon. Frankie was what we would now call an alpha male. He could out-run, out-’rassle, out-climb, out-shoot, out-just about anything all the rest of us boys. I had better penmanship, but that didn’t count for a whole lot. Frankie made my childhood interesting. He was forever leading me into more mischief than I would ever have gotten into by myself.
Like tree rodeo. I don’t know if Frankie dreamed it up himself or learned it from his older brother, Charles, but we would ride pine trees for sport. A bunch of us boys would get a rope and make a lasso and throw it up to the top of a young pine, a 20-25 footer, and bow it down toward the ground. One of us would climb on the trunk near the top and hang on for dear life when the others released it like a catapult. It would whipsaw you better than the Tilt o’ Whirl at the county fair. We always picked pines growing where the weeds were deep. That way, if we got slung off, we would have some landing cushion. We imagined ourselves pretty unbreakable then, but we weren’t total fools.
Or maybe we were.
It was Frankie’s brainstorm to pad ourselves up in old jackets and gloves and hats and put on headlamps like coal miners use and go into the rat-infested feed barn at my folks’ place with hoe handles. We shut the door tight, turned on our lights and started kicking boxes and barrels. When the rats started scurrying, it was better than a batting cage. Except that one of the file-tails ran up my leg and I had to get a tetanus shot. It didn’t bite me, thank the Lord, but I stuck myself on a nail trying to get away from it.
Another time Frankie rode me down a hill — it must have been an 80-degree incline – on the handlebars of his old Murray bicycle. It felt like we were going 60 miles an hour on gravity alone, but he was peddling to make it go faster and I was screaming louder than a police siren. We veered off the road into a creek bed and streaked through a concrete culvert. It’s a wonder we weren’t decapitated. We came out on the other side and crashed into the water. Frankie couldn’t stop laughing. Almost dying was fun to him.
We climbed fire towers and hunted snakes. We crawled into caves in the red clay hillsides and tried to swing like Tarzan on vines that would barely support a squirrel. But the scariest time was that night on the Rubber Road.
It was late September. The weather was still warm. I was 11 years old, going on 12, and Frankie had just turned 12. He had gotten a shotgun for his birthday, a 20-gauge pump. I was still stuck with a BB gun, but we all had Bowie knives and stuff. Nobody thought much of it.
Frankie came over to my house that evening with his new shotgun. It was dusk, and I was eating supper with my folks and my brother. Frankie wanted me to go rabbit hunting with him. You go out with a headlamp, same as we used for rat batting. You try to catch the rabbit in the beam of the headlight and freeze it. It’s supposed to make the animal easier to shoot. It is, of course, illegal.
Frankie begged my mama and daddy to let me go, and they resisted. It was a school night. I wheedled and pleaded, and they finally said, “All right, but just for a couple of hours. You have to be home before too late.”
Before we left, Mama said, “Wait, honey, you need to change your shoes.” I had a new pair of combat boots, my pride and joy. They were clodhoppers, like work shoes, except they also had a strap that buckled around the ankle.
Mama said there might still be wet patches from the rain, and she didn’t want me to ruin the boots. I said, “Mama, no, this is what they’re for. They’re meant for rough ground and any kind of weather.” I finally argued her out of it, and she said, “Well, you better watch your step. And make sure you walk behind Frankie.”
We took off through our pasture and over the creek that ran through our place. We sneaked around the woods, trying to walk soft and quiet like we had seen Indians do in the movies. Occasionally we would stop and be real still for a minute and then Frankie would flip on the headlamp. We were hoping to catch a rabbit or a raccoon or a possum. Anything we could shoot at.
It didn’t take an hour for boredom to set in. “You know what we ought to do?” Frankie said. “We ought to go over to the Rubber Road, see if anything’s going on.”
Now, the Rubber Road may sound exotic, like something on a plantation in Burma or somewhere like that, but what it was really was a lovers’ lane, so named for the prophylactic apparatus frequently tossed out of car windows. And it wasn’t one road. It was a maze of cracked and potholed tar-and-gravel roads left over from an old military camp. Most all the buildings were long gone and grown over, but the grid remained. People went there for one of two things, to fool around or to dump their trash.
We hiked through the woods and through a field of knee-deep weeds and scrub pines. Frankie was in front with the 20-gauge, me behind. Frankie had once shot a hole the size of a watermelon through the bathroom door at his granddaddy’s house with a 12-guage he thought was unloaded. I didn’t need my mama telling me to be careful.
We found ourselves a good spot in the weeds overlooking a stretch of the Rubber Road and sat down to wait four feet apart. The moon was out. It wasn’t full, but it was bright enough that we could see pretty well. There were no tall trees to block the light where we sat.
We were getting itchy and arguing over whether to move on when we saw the headlights of a car. It maneuvered through the grid and pulled up to a stop about 40 feet from us. We crawled up a few feet closer while the engine was still rumbling. “Oh my Lord,” I said under my breath. Frankie let out a low, slow whistle. He knew, too.
It was G.C. Jefcoats. His 1957 Mercury was unmistakable, a two-tone hardtop with spinner hubcaps and dual exhausts. It was the kind of car we dreamed of owning when we got big.
G.C. lived a couple of miles from us, down off of Highway 11. His folks made their living off a junkyard – lived in it, actually. They had wrecked cars on their lawn and all over the pasture behind their house. G.C. still lived at home, but he was about 30. He looked like your classic hotrod hoodlum. Greased-back hair. Usually had a pack of smokes stuck in the rolled up sleeve of his T-shirt. And he had a mean streak. If he drove past kids like us when we were out on our bikes on the back roads, he would swerve slightly toward us and make us run into the bushes. We thought he was a jerk, but we also kind of admired him. He had that really fine Mercury. And here me and Frankie were, sitting not much more than 10 yards from it. We felt like we had front row seats at a rasslin’ match at the Laurel Civic Center.
G.C. got out of the Mercury. He thumped away a cigarette butt. We could see the sparks arc through the air. He walked around the front of the car to the passenger side. He opened the door and offered the woman inside his arm. I wouldn’t have guessed he could play the gentleman.
The woman wore a dark skirt and light-colored blouse. Her hair was in a pony tail. She looked like she could have been a junior college student, one of Frankie’s brother’s girlfriends.
G.C. led her around to the front of the car. He put his hands around her waist, lifted her up and sat her down on the left front fender. They laughed and talked and then they started kissing. She wrapped her bare legs around him. They were doing some serious smooching.
G.C. pulled back and said something, and she giggled. We were dug in, looking out over the tops of the weeds. I saw him swagger over to the passenger’s side window and reach inside. He came back with a flashlight. The woman started unbuttoning her dress while he shined the light on her. Then she slipped the top of her dress down off her shoulders and reached behind to unhook her brassiere.
Frankie whispered what I was thinking: “O my God, titties.” We had never seen a woman’s breasts before except for the ones we nursed on, which was a while ago, and some we saw in a National Geographic magazine at school.
Frankie whispered again. He said he couldn’t stand it. He had to get closer, had to get a better look. He started to crawl toward G.C. and the woman Army-style, with the shotgun out in front of him. He had only moved four or five feet farther from me when he broke a stick with his knee. In the quiet night, it made an audible crack.
“Who’s out there?” G.C.’s voice had a snarl to it, like a bad dog’s.
We didn’t breathe.
“All right, who’s out there?”
We stayed put, frozen. He shined the flashlight our way. And of course it went the way it almost always went with me and Frankie. He would do the deed, and I would pay the price. The beam of the flashlight found me – or rather, the seat of my pants – as I was attempting to burrow headfirst into the weeds.
“I see you out there,” G.C. said.
I could feel the light burning my butt, but I said nothing.
“Now come on out of there. I ain’t gonna hurt you,” he said.
I was thinking, “Sure, buddy.”
His tone changed. He sounded like my daddy. “Don’t make me come in there and get you.”
I could hear the crunch of gravel. I peeped up and I could see him leaning into his car on the passenger’s side again. The woman had pulled her blouse up and moved around to the other side of the Mercury, behind the right front fender. G.C. turned back toward us, and I could see in the moonlight that he now had the flashlight in his left hand and a shiny pistol in the other. I dug in again. I tried to be small. I tried not to wet my pants.
“I’m gon’ count to five, and if you don’t get up here, I’m comin’ in to get you,” he said.
I couldn’t see Frankie. I felt very alone.
“How many are there of you?”
“More than you can imagine,” I yelled.
This did not scare him. He said, “OK, kid, I’m countin’ to five. One. Two. Three. Four. Come on out now, you little bastard. Five.”
Right then, Frankie yelled, “Don’t take another step!.”
G.C. must have thought it was me still talking. He said, “Oh, bullshit.”
I heard the sound of a heavy foot on gravel. I tensed, trying to decide whether to make a run for it or try to burrow. Suddenly, over to my right, in the dark, Frankie jumped up and popped off two quick shots with the shotgun – BAM! BLAM! – over G.C.’s head.
The woman screamed. I looked up and saw G.C. jump like he had just stepped on a copperhead. The pistol flew one way, the flashlight another. G.C. hit the ground and rolled under the Mercury, and me and Frankie started running as fast as we could in the opposite direction. We didn’t stop until we reached a cluster of pines about 100 yards across the field. We were huffing and puffing and panting as we hid in the brush, crouching low.
When I got half a breath, I said, “Good Lord, Frankie, I can’t believe that.”
“I know,” he said. “Did you see them titties?”
I said, “Frankie, geez, you almost shot G.C.”
“So?” he said. “I was aiming high.”
We heard what must have been cussing back where the car was, and then the motor started. We heard G.C. rev it up so high, the exhaust pipes rumbled. He pulled out fast. Rocks flew every which way.
We watched the car head out of the grid, and we decided we better head for home. Frankie, who could always make things worse, said, “We better be careful, Noel, ’cause he’s probably gonna be looking for whoever shot at him.”
I hadn’t even thought of that.
I suggested we go back through the woods the way we came. Frankie said no, that would take too long. Instead we cut through the grid to the main road that goes past his house and eventually to mine.
We got through the field to the main road and started home. Every time we saw a car’s lights, we hid in the ditch. When we got to Frankie’s house, about a fifth of mile from mine, he said, “’Night, see you tomorrow.”
I said, “Wait a minute now. I’m not walking the rest of the way by myself. You got me into this and, by God, you’re not gonna desert me. You’ve got the gun.”
Frankie was already running for his front door. “Gotcha last look in the face,” he yelled back at me.
I watched him go in, and then I started toward home. It seemed like there was another car or truck every 15 seconds. I walked pretty much the whole way home in the ditch.
When I got to the back door, Mama was waiting for me. Daddy had already gone to bed. He had to get up early for work. Mama was already mad because I was late. When she could see me in the light of the kitchen, she got even madder. I had stickers and dirt all over my clothes, and my new combat boots looked like I had taken wet red clay and smeared it on them from soles to flaps.
Mama threw a fit. She said, “I can’t believe you, Noel Wesley. I could just… just shoot you.”
I said, “Watch what you say, Mama.”
She said, “Don’t you get smart with me, boy!” She sent me out into the yard right then and there to pick her a switch.
I blamed Frankie for the whipping. Not to her directly. But I blamed him. And I got him back, too, the following summer. That was when he got his head stuck in the headlight socket of the Bus Body. But that’s another story.
Editor’s note: This story is an excerpt from “Brother Fant’s Canine College and Pet Cemetery & Other Stories,” a memoir in progress.