A small Southern town.
Two young boys looking for things to do,
a summertime of freedom spread in front of them,
It was hot, so hot I didn’t even want to ride over to Riley’s house to see why he hadn’t come over yet. Probably his ma’s having a cow again. They didn’t get along. At all. Since he didn’t have a dad, only a ma and sister, that could have been bad, but he had me, and he had my ma and pa, too, so he was okay.
I was sitting on the porch steps out back, moving with the sun so I could stay in the shadow of the roof overhang.
The sky was brilliant blue, almost too blue to look at. No clouds anywhere. Just blue, with a sun so blazingly bright if you stared at it, you’d go blind. Everyone knew that.
Mostly in the summer we had lots of clouds. That might have been why it was so humid all the time—all those clouds keeping the damp in. But today, even though it still felt as humid as a wet sock, all that was up there was blue.
So I sat on those steps thinking about clouds and no clouds. With clouds, you could let your imagination run wild, seeing all sorts of things. My specialty was animals. Riley saw all sorts of stuff like buildings and tanks and trees and people and things like that. Me, it was mostly animals. I liked animals.
With clouds, I’d have had something to take my mind off the heat, something other than feeling the beads of sweat trickling down past my ears and across my neck to where they joined their buddies running down my bare chest. As they dripped and dropped I ignored them best I could. I focused instead on what was happening at the back end of our yard. We had a deep backyard. Most of the houses in Lewisville, Mississippi, my small, Southern town—it was more a village than a town, but everyone called it a town, so I did, too—had deep yards stretching way back from the house, except the ones in the shanty part of town. and that was a very small part of town. Our yard was like the rest, not all that wide but long from the street to the house and then long again before it became our neighbor’s backyard. Then it was long again to his house. His backyard was just as deep as ours.
What I was doing while sitting there—letting my sweat make a puddle on the steps under me and being too lazy to ride off to see what Riley was doing—was watching what was happening way back where our two yards met up. What was happening was a wall was going up. Where our yard stopped and the one behind us began, some men were building a wall.
No one built walls! It was unneighborly, and that wasn’t the Southern way at all. It wasn’t who we were. Neighborliness was our culture. When a neighbor got sick, we took a cooked dish to them. When they went to visit their aunt over to Logansport or Visalia or Gatlinburg, we tended to their cat. Neighborly. Building a wall purely seemed like a slap in the face.
Ma would stand in our yard and talk for an hour with Mrs. Perkins on the left of us, or Mr. Ungarth on the right. Pa would, too, unless he was off to work where the shops all were and couldn’t stop to talk or he’d be late. He always said he opened his store at nine and not a minute later.
The Hendersons, who’d lived behind us as long as there’d been a me, over eleven years now, had up and sold their house at the beginning of the summer. He’d taught at the little elementary school in our town, and he’d retired after the spring semester had wound down and we’d been set free for the summer. Then he’d sold the house and taken his wife and moved up to Oregon.
That’s what I’d heard him saying to Ma. ‘Oregon is where we’re going,’ was what he’d said, and that it was nothing like Mississippi. He was tired of the damn summer heat. The damn humidity. The damn hurricanes. The double-damn mosquitoes. Ma didn’t scold him for saying damn like she’d of done with me. She told him she was awful sorry to see him and Mabel Sue go after all these years. He said they’d miss us, too, and seeing me eavesdropping, added, “and even you, Travis,” and then winked at me. He was one of the teachers I’d liked. Near about the only one, too.
Then he’d said, “You be careful of those middle-school teachers off in Gatlinburg, Travis. Some of them are plum mean! I heard one got suspended for one whole day last year because he ate one of his students. An entire day! Without pay!”
I’d laughed, sure he was joking, though I never was quite that sure when it came to adults and their jokes. I’d thought he was trying to make me feel better about leaving our elementary school and moving on up. I guess he knew most of us boys were a little anxious about that even if we never let on even to each other.
Ma had asked him about his house, and he’d said he’d signed up with a Realtor in Gatlinburg to sell it and send them the money. Lewisville wasn’t big enough and not enough people moved in or out to have our own local Realtor—or a middle school, either—and so he’d signed on with one in the largest town nearby. He said so far no one had even come to look at the house, but he’d been assured it would sell eventually. Maybe, he’d thought, when they’d found a teacher to replace him, that guy might want to buy it. In any case, he and Mabel Sue were leaving and glad to go on up to Oregon and live close by to their son.
That had been three weeks ago. Before the summer had got this far along or this hot. In that time, I’d seen a couple of cars drive up and a few people give a look see at the house. Then, we’d heard the place had sold. Very soon after that, workmen had showed up, and they began building the wall.
What did whoever had bought the place want with a wall? Made no sense to me. We had some big trees back there, an elm and two oaks and a hickory, and there were some in what used to be the Hendersons’ backyard as well, such that we couldn’t hardly see much of his house from ours or vice versa. Building a wall wouldn’t give him any more privacy from us, that was for sure. It just seemed, I don’t know, unneighborly; that’s the best word I can come up with, I guess. In Lewisville, which didn’t even come to two-thousand people, counting even the chickens and occasional pig, everyone knew everyone else. No one built no damn walls. Oops. Darn walls.
But one was going up, right there behind our yard. From the porch steps, I could see underneath those spreading trees, now in full leaf in the summer, and I could see the cinderblocks slowly getting higher each day. I could see the men running a string to keep the blocks all the same height in each row and see them using a level now and then. Saw them slapping mortar on each layer and on the ends of every block. Saw them tapping the blocks just so with the ends of their trowel things. Looked like hard work in the heat. Maybe that was why the guys what were doing it were Mexicans.
Mr. Henderson’d have scolded me for that sentence. He’d have had a word for what was wrong with it. Maybe a couple of them. But it was too hot for me to be using the grammar he’d taught me or following all his rules. No, I couldn’t remember just what to call what I’d done wrong, but I did know that it was something, something about the former not leading to the latter. Maybe. It was just too hot for me to be fussing about it, anyway.
I still hadn’t ever seen the people who were moving in back there. I heard Ma and Pa talking about it and knew the name of the man who’d bought it was Condon. Mr. Condon. They didn’t know nothing about him, neither, whether it was just him or a family with kids or anything. I’d seen the wall builders, three of them who all looked like Mexicans to me, as I’ve already said, with the wide-brimmed hats and mustaches and dark skin and all, but they left at 5:00 PM each day, and when me ‘n Riley happened to ride our bikes by the front of the Henderson house of an evening three nights ago, there was a light inside somewheres, so I figured someone was in there, and it weren’t the Mexicans.
I’d been sort of wondering if Mr. Condon had kids. Well, boys. I had no use for girls. I didn’t really need other boys, either, as I had Riley, but having another boy around might be interesting. So I was curious. My ma said me being curious was sort of like hot tar being sticky and the gators down in the swamp south of town being hungry, but none of that made no sense to me and I didn’t dwell on it much. But when I got to asking too many questions, she’d throw up her hands and claim my middle name should be Curious. I did like to know things; she had that right. Pa laughed at me when I started asking too many questions in a row and took to calling me ’perfessor’. Don’t know why he done that, neither. Parents tend not to make sense a lot of the time, and you can get plumb tired out trying to work it all through. I just tried to ignore them, mostly.
Anyway, I just sat there, getting the porch wetter and wondering about Riley, when the back door opened and he sat down beside me. He was wetter ’n I was on account of having to ride his bike over in the heat.
He didn’t say anything—probably too bushed to speak. Then the door snapped open again and Ma was there with two big glasses of her lemonade, and Riley drank his in about one long pull, then took a deep breath and said, “That sure hit the spot, ma’am. Thanks!” And he smiled at her. I think she liked that smile as much as I did.
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