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Authors: Rodney Crowell

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BOOK: Chinaberry Sidewalks
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Not one to take challenges to his manhood lightly, my father, standing five foot eleven to Mr. Christian’s six three, managed to place his nose and chin squarely against his adversary’s. “I tell you what, Gene. I can come back here after a bit, and we can talk this out man-to-man. But right now I gotta go take care of my boy.”

Jimmy Reed’s harmonica shrieked like a referee’s whistle, but neither of them seemed willing to budge. Both, in fact, seemed comfortable with the stalemate.

My heart leapt up in my chest at the sight of my father standing up to Mr. Christian, even if he was the one who started the trouble. Hearing him call me “my boy” was better than ten apologies or any present he might’ve bought me. How hateful he’d been to my mother and how recklessly he’d behaved on my birthday no longer seemed to matter. Having him hold me in his lap while the emergency-room doctor put four stitches in my scalp was the best gift imaginable.

Whether it was destiny or misfortune that caused my parents to join their lives together, I don’t know. It could be that their collision course was a foregone conclusion long before my father stepped up to defend my mother’s honor at that Roy Acuff concert all those years ago.

The Buck Family Chronicles

D
abbo Buck’s arrival on Norvic Street in the spring of 1958 marked the beginning of a new era of full-tilt, living-on-the-edge childhood. Rusty nails, broken bones, and rabies shots tripled within the first month of the Buck family’s materialization in the house catty-cornered to ours. Their impact on the neighborhood’s noise pollution was instant. For them, racket was part symphonic composition, part improvisational jazz, with Sherman, Margie, Dabbo, and Dianne each a virtuoso in the art of raising a ruckus on the poorly tuned instruments of day-to-day living. Their integration into our ebb and flow was akin to that of a brick thrown through a plate-glass window, and there was no option of getting acquainted at your own pace. Where once had stood an empty house and a For Sale sign, there now were slamming doors, shotgun blasts, contusions, and concussions.

Margie Buck had been in the habit of chewing Days Work tobacco and spitting the juice into a Folgers coffee can since she was ten years old. She told me so herself, in an introductory monologue that highlighted the biographical importance of her four-year reign as the junior hog-calling champion of Jackson County, Tennessee. Larger than life and of an indeterminable age—anywhere between thirty-five and sixty-five is my guess—she loved sitting on the front porch in her pea-green aluminum lawn chair and, depending on her mood, surprising Dabbo with a poke in the arm or a bop on the head whenever he passed within arm’s length. Margie Buck was as loud as she was self-sufficient and mean as a water moccasin. She took a liking to me and the feeling was mutual.

Born and raised in the backwoods of western Tennessee, near the town of Jacks Creek, Margie, the adult, was a big-boned, swarthy gal whose stringy, silver-streaked hair was permanently braided on top of her head. Three cotton farm dresses, an old nightgown, and a pair of white size-13 sandals were her entire, year-round wardrobe.

At calling her children in from their neighborhood rounds, Margie Buck was without peer. “Cleeve Beniard Buck,” she’d yell, rattling windows with Dabbo’s given name, “you better get in this house right now, you little shit-ass, or I’m gonna track you down and gut you with your daddy’s buck knife.” She liked to yell, simple as that, a world-class hog caller and proud of it. Anybody who didn’t like it could kiss her hillbilly ass.

Earsplitting nuance placed her summons in one of two categories: stay of execution or the electric chair. For Dabbo, the clue was found in her treatment of his middle name. He’d come scampering out of the bushes happy as a dog eating leftovers whenever his mother heightened the “ard” in “Beniard.” Otherwise, he stayed hid.

Once, for fear of the bodily harm foretold in her flat pronunciation of “Beniard,” Dabbo lay motionless beneath a parked car for three hours. For the benefit of any puritans in the neighborhood, she added, “You better get your skinny white ass in this house, or I’m gonna cut your balls off with your daddy’s straight razor.”

From the backyard, I’d heard her all-points bulletin and had a pretty good idea where the accursed fugitive might be found. Careful to avoid detection, I pushed through the honeysuckle bushes and crawled under the old Packard Mrs. Boyer kept parked in front of the house next door to ours and joined Dabbo in hiding. We lay there stock-still and silent as ghosts, our nostrils raising puffs in the cat shit and dirt, while Margie ran through her repertoire of death threats. Forty-five minutes later, she gave up, went in the house, and locked the door.

“Dabbo,” I whispered, “I gotta go home. What you gonna do?”

“Lay here till she’s sound asleep, then I’ll get W’anne to let me in at her window.” (Dabbo had a speech impediment that mangled his older sister’s name, Dianne.)

An hour later, after I’d taken a bath and made sure my parents were in bed for the night, I slipped out the back door and found he hadn’t moved. “Dabbo,” I croaked, “why you still layin’ under—”

“Sssh.” He cut me off, placing an eight-year-old finger over his mouth. “I knew you’d come back,” he whispered. “You gotta go look in Momma and Daddy’s window. If they’re asleep, scratch on W’anne’s screen and get ’er to let me in. If Momma ain’t asleep, I ain’t movin’ an inch.”

Ever the dutiful friend, I stole across the street barefoot and in clean underwear. Crouched beneath their bedroom window but lacking the nerve to peep, I took Mr. Buck’s herculean snoring as proof that he and Margie were fast asleep. Having counted to two hundred by fives without hearing anything but rumbling snores, I assumed the coast was clear and scurried around to the back of the house, where Dabbo and his sister shared a bedroom.

A scratch on the screen brought the left side of Dianne’s face into fuzzy focus in the lower right-hand corner of the window frame. After silent arrangements were made for her to unhook the screen, I ran tippy-toed back across the street to the car.

It wasn’t until I gave him the all-clear sign that Dabbo, after three hours of playing possum, crawled out from under the Packard. Dusting himself off, he nodded across the street. “You gotta help me climb in the window.”

The temperature of the night air dropped a few degrees when I knelt on hands and knees, Dabbo standing upright on the middle of my back. The grass was dew-drenched and cool, shimmering in the moonlight as my friend negotiated re-entry with his uncharacteristically compliant sister. A slight breeze rustled the stillness, and the night settled into a deeper quietness, and, in a house down the alley, a light sleeper cleared his throat. He might as well have hollered, “Wake up, Margie, Dabbo’s climbing in the bedroom window.”

Dabbo was halfway through when the light snapped on inside the bedroom. His mother grabbed him by the ear, cackling like a broom-riding witch. “I got you now, you little sack-a shit, and I’m gonna beat the daylights outta you
and
that little fart from across the street.”

I don’t recall racing home in my underpants. The next thing I remember is that I was in bed with the covers pulled over my head, listening to the sound of my heart pounding in my chest cavity. And I didn’t budge until long after the sun came up the next morning.

I didn’t see Dabbo around for a few days. Assuming the worst, I waited for Margie to charge across our front yard, vowing to cut my gizzard out, but she never came. Three days later, figuring the suspense was more likely to kill me, I summoned the courage to cross the street and knock on the Bucks’ door.

Dabbo answered in apparent good health.

“What happened?”

“Nothin’,” he said. “She just wanted to scare the pee outta you and me. They were watchin’ us the whole time. Daddy was in on it. He said he laid there in the bed fakin’ snores and just about dirtied his drawers. Momma wouldn’t let me come tell you ’cause it would take the fun outta keepin’ you in suspenders. We been waitin’ on you to come on over ever since.”

Margie shuffled smugly onto the porch. Making a big deal out of plopping down in her lawn chair, she winked and spat a thick drivel of tobacco juice into her coffee can. “Y’all gonna have to get up pretty damn early to put one over on Margie Buck. And that’s the truth if I ever told it.”

.  .  .

Sherman Buck was the tobacco-chewing second-in-command of the household across the street, a cement finisher of the highest order and a man known to waste neither words nor motion. Khaki pants, concrete-dusted work boots, fisherman’s cap, long underwear, and flannel shirt—the sleeves rolled up two turns—were his outfit for every occasion. His contributions to the family’s noise quotient were made five, sometimes six, mornings a week at five-thirty when, without fail, a turn of the ignition in his ’53 Ford pickup produced a chain of earsplitting backfires that announced it was time to go to work—only then, and the rare occasions when he spoke.

His voice combined the sounds of a bad muffler, a dump truck full of gravel, and the full-on, full-off blast of a foghorn. I heard him raise it in anger but once, standing a few feet away when he spat the full name of his son from his mouth like a full load of 10-gauge buckshot. Dabbo was bagged with one shell.

Mr. Buck was born in the hill country of central Texas; his father was a blacksmith and his mother a Comanche Indian. He had a natural aversion to words that I envisioned as the elegant by-product of his mixed breeding and the hard life his family had chiseled out of the horse-and-livestock trade particular to San Saba County, the faraway land where he grew up.

The only time I can recall him stringing more than a few simple sentences together was when he told Dabbo and me the story of an incident that took place when he was twelve years old and chopping wood with a double-blade axe. He dredged up this memory in order to demonstrate the virtues of concentration. While building a backyard duck blind, Dabbo had smashed his thumb with a ballpeen hammer and, with me in tow, run off to seek comfort from the first available adult, who happened to be his father. Mr. Buck sat silent as a statue while his boy wailed in his lap, and when the howling ceased and the tears dried, he said, “Listen here, son, I was twelve year old and working on a stack of firewood, and blamed if my mind wasn’t off somewhere doin’ somethin’ else. What I done was bury that axe blade between the big toe on my left foot and the one next to it, halfway up to the ankle.” Leaning back in his chair, he took a long, slow swallow from his ever-present jar of sweet iced tea, “Well, sir,” he said, “my daddy pulled that blade out and cut my shoe off with his pocketknife, then poured black pepper in that great big slice. And I tell you what …” He waited a long beat to let the image of blood and black pepper seep into our imaginations. “I coulda caught any deer in Texas! I run six miles, one shoe on, one shoe off, ’cross some of the roughest country this side of the Pecos. When Daddy caught up to me, he was ridin’ an old mule name-a Sadie. ‘Boy,’ he says to me, ‘you done made me have to go doctor that foot all over again.’ Damned if he didn’t hold me down and pour the rest of that pepper in the gash and wrap my foot up tight with twine. He said he reckoned thataway my foot’d grow back together. I rode back to the house on ole Sadie, foot just a-throbbin’. Sure enough, the blamed thing growed back good as new. I never did go see no doctor. Hell, they wudn’t one for twenty-five mile. Daddy cut down a saplin’ and made me a crutch. I was back doin’ chores in a day or two.”

As a river fisherman, Sherman Buck was unrivaled. He could drag alligator gar and catfish as long as your leg out of a dry creek bed. Rain-soaked riverbanks awakened something primal in him. When he was fishing, his construction worker’s slouch was overwhelmed by the regality associated with visiting dignitaries and war heroes. On muddier and swifter rivers, not even natural forces like gravity seemed to register on Dabbo’s father.

The Brazos flows through the watermelon farmland west of Houston like a downsized Mississippi before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, with the towns of Navasota, Hempstead, San Felipe, Richmond, Rosenberg, and Sugar Land lining its banks at a respectable distance. Mr. Buck’s fondness for this wild and unpredictable river was infectious. Dabbo and I disdained the San Jacinto as fat and lazy, and the Trinity as nothing more than a trickle of tadpoles. The Brazos was our river of choice.

Crossing the Brazos brought a steady climb in landscape reaching up onto the Edwards plateau. Farther west was Old Mexico and the Rio Grande, where, according to
The World Book Encyclopedia
, a world-record alligator gar—270 pounds—was caught in 1936. Dabbo and I were staunch in our belief that beneath the Brazos’s muddy waters, gar twice that size were lurking one cast away from his father’s deep-sea rod and open-faced reel.

Flash flooding here was a common occurrence. Summer storms and gully washers could, over two or three days, turn the river the color of café au lait, with whirlpools and deep eddies everywhere. Negotiating her banks at such times required the kind of concentration my friend and I sorely lacked.

In preparation for one of our big fishing trips, Dabbo and I finagled an excursion to the Sears, Roebuck. With all of twenty-seven cents between us, we begged and pleaded and eventually eroded his mother’s resolve not to contribute to expeditions she considered “too damn dangerous for y’all little snot-nosed heathens.” Our tenacity was rewarded with a ride in her nearly brand-new, sky-blue ’59 Chevy Impala, since Margie was always on the lookout for opportunities to rub her neighbors’ noses in the dirt. A shopping trip suited her just fine.

The Sears out on Wayside Drive was an airport hangar disguised as a department store, so Dabbo and I had little trouble giving her the slip. Faking interest in back-to-school clothes just long enough for Margie to be drawn into discussing the finer points of the layaway plan with a clerk, we stole off for the Outdoors department. Less-deluded thieves might have known that the spinning lures, lead weights, pop corks, plastic worms, and forty-pound test line we stuffed into our pockets would cause unforeseen problems—the treble hooks, for example, were stabbing me in the leg. And shoving packages of plastic soldiers down the front of our pants made us only slightly less conspicuous than the Michelin Man.

Had another minute passed, surely second thoughts would’ve prevented the coming debacle. But by then Margie was yelling, from halfway across the store, “Y’all get on over here, we goin’ to the house. So bring whatever it is you need. I ain’t fixin’ to wait on you little shits.”

“Aw, we couldn’t find nothin’,” Dabbo lied. “We might as well get on home.”

Bunched behind the folds of Margie’s cotton dress, the two of us moved as one past an oblivious cashier, our nonchalance as suspect as the bulging pockets nobody seemed to notice.

“Looks like the coast is clear,” Dabbo whispered.

With the glaring white freedom of a hot summer’s day less than ten feet away, we followed his mother toward the Exit sign. As if welcoming us to the world outside, the automatic doors swung open and allowed us to transport a small mountain of contraband across some invisible line that differentiated shoppers from shoplifters about to be caught red-handed.

BOOK: Chinaberry Sidewalks
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