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A Fictionalized Memoir

Paul Sedlock

Copyright © 2015 Paul Sedlock

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Book cover by Faye Cummings

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Also by Paul Sedlock

The Nightdream

Author’s note

I have changed the names of some of the characters to protect their privacy. I have also altered certain geographical features.

For Faye


Also by Paul Sedlock

Author's Note



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six


Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine


Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen


Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen


Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four


Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six


About The Author



A thin red needle swept past twelve for sixty heartbeats. Chin on crossed hands, elbows pointing out, I gazed at the glistening silver band, the polished transparent disc. These shiny miracles made it mine.

I imagined the rear sliding glass door ajar, my fingers scurrying across warm glass. I’d quickly snatch the treasure, pocket it, and stroll out whistling “Glow Worm.” Busybody Sister Ann burst into my brain reciting strict catechisms. Father Mark also intruded. “Sententia vadum non rapio,” he said, expecting me to translate. My larcenous hand ignored them. Father Mark bellowed in English, a language I understood, “David Crobak! You’ll be condemned to Hell where a little molten silver disc will burn a watch-sized hole into your wrist for all eternity.” I pushed away from the glass counter, and fled out the door. I turned toward the Bank of Carthage, where my Western Flyer leaned against a shaded wall below a bronze plaque:


ON APRIL 29, 1872



The riled but obedient bankers must’ve muttered the Lord’s name in vain when the James gang burst in at lunchtime, their guns drawn, faces twitching beneath dusty red bandannas.

The bank, a tall building with fancy windows, brass door handles, and marbled counters, anchored one block on our downtown square, but it wasn’t the most impressive structure. That honor belonged to the majestic Jasper County Courthouse. It rose from the middle of the square and dominated our downtown. Above its medieval turrets and columns, the clock tower peaked at seven stories. Some said it was the highest point in Jasper County.

Before the air warmed, the courthouse looked stately, a castle befitting the Knights of the Roundtable. Then, for reasons unknown to me, every sparrow in southwest Missouri decided to make it home. Riding in on afternoon breezes, they alighted, stood wing to wing, and defecated at will.

Within days of their unwelcomed arrival it looked like a rowdy flock of modern artists had painted the sidewalks and benches around the Courthouse a crazy white and gray. Folks worried that come fall the plastered leaves of the maples dotting the grounds wouldn’t change color. Quickly the sparrow invasion became the topic of talk, displacing front-page stories of eggs sizzling on hot sidewalks and five ways to beat heatstroke.

I gripped my handlebars, rolled my bike down the block, and glanced over my shoulder. Men carrying shotguns were surrounding the Courthouse. The ad hoc firing squad itched with civic revenge.

Charlie Seven, the smartest kid in my fifth grade class, said the fretting turned into action after Judge Baker and a nearsighted big shot from Jefferson City bought ice cream cones at Ramsay's, the drugstore cater-cornered from the courthouse. They licked their melting cones in the shade of maples near the front steps of our town jewel and glad-handed every passing ma’am or sir. Then a squadron of sparrows swooped over.

Spat! A wet missile hit the back of the Judge’s hand and sent his cone south. The politician from up north was holding his vanilla cone waist high. Spat! Spat! So intent on finishing a salient point, he hadn't noticed the two new flavors. He paused and raised his cone, intending to give it a good licking when he heard the judge holler, “Bird shit!”

The outraged judge wasted no time seeking civic revenge. He stormed into the mayor’s office and demanded an Official Emergency Meeting of Outraged Citizens. The following afternoon, twenty quick-stepping men waited until they were well inside before they cautiously peeled off their speckled hats.

“What should we do?”

“Gas ‘em.”

“And what, kill us too?”

“Poison ‘em.”


“Have Clarence fly over in his crop duster.”

Twenty men rubbed their chins, considering.

Then someone said, “Shoot the ornery sons-of-bitches.”

The headline read THE BIG SHOOT.

Keeping a sideways eye on resolute men shoving red shells into their shotguns, I pushed my bike along the curb, weaved around clusters of noisy onlookers, and aimed for daylight at the end of the block.

Storekeepers locked their shops and rushed out to bear witness. In front of the opulent Tiger Theatre, Judge Baker and the mayor stood on a platform and addressed the multitude with a bullhorn, their civic words lost in the din. I was almost at the corner, ready to step into my stirrup and hightail it downhill when the first thundering blasts shook the air. I nearly dropped my bike. I pushed on, heart pounding, and at Ramsay's mounted my steed as The Kid, a lesser-known member of the James Gang who knew it was high time to vamoose. I glanced back.

All around the Courthouse, twelve-gauge shotguns exploded like strings of cherry bombs. A hail of spent cartridges pelted the street. A sulfurous stench hung in the square. Waves of sparrows dropped from the sky. They spiraled downward like mottled rocks, their dead wings outstretched, unmoving.


In the summer of ‘49, my pals and I played baseball in a big yard across the alley from Mom’s chicken coop. A tall hedge walled two sides of our makeshift field and a lofty Victorian, its windows always tightly draped, lined the third side. A tall sycamore, its thin skin dappled as though by interior light, shaded home plate.

“That’s a strike,” Elmer said. He was the oldest, soon to be in third grade, and brawny like a man.

“I didn’t swing,” I said.

“You broke your wrists.”

“No, I didn’t.” I swept my foot across home plate, an anvil-shaped slab of black granite Elmer lugged in from the alley.

“God, you’re dumb.” He punched his floppy glove. “That’s a strike. Wally, tell the dummy why.”

Wally, his rosy cheeks faint in the shade, tossed the lopsided hardball back to Elmer and took the scarred bat from me. “See, it’s a strike if you start to swing and then try an’ stop.” The bat whipped forward and froze. “See, your wrists turn over like they’re sorta broke.” He shrugged not my rules.

After the game everybody scattered fast except Elmer and me. We stood in the sycamore’s quiet shadows. He hitched his glove to his belt, and we sauntered toward the cinder-strewn alley. He lived a block down from me. His family had the only TV in the neighborhood. The rabbit ears sitting on top of their new RCA picked up two stations. Agitated worms disrupted the picture on channel two. On channel five Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody came in as clear as Rocket Man at the Saturday matinee. Even though I was only seven, and Elmer a third grader, I wanted him to like me so I could watch his family’s TV.

“Thanks for letting me use your glove when you was batting,” I said. He sprinted across the alley to Mom’s chicken coop, picked up a big stick and clacked it across the wire, stirring up a cluck ruckus.

“Shouldn’t do that.”

“Aw, nuts.” He threw the stick against the wire. It made an angry thwack. “Your mom sure keeps lotsa chickens.”


“Ever seen ‘er kill ‘em?”


“Here’s how I’d kill ‘em.” He snarled, balled his hands into thick knuckled fists, and twisted them like he was wringing out a wet towel.

“She doesn’t do it like that.”

“Ya said ya ain’t never seen.”

He threw me a mean look and stomped off down the alley. I quickened my pace to match his long strides and kicked a rock. It rolled into downy brome choking the rundown garage behind the spooky Victorian. Elmer once said a pair of warty old maids, like the ones in the card game, lived in the house, and on Halloween they turned into witches.

“Now I know about breaking my wrists.”

I swung an imaginary bat to illustrate how well I’d learned his lesson. He looked down at me and snorted. We neared the street. He picked up a twig, snapped it in two, stuck one piece between his teeth, and tossed the other over his shoulder. He pointed toward the garage.

“Ya gotta be careful of ‘em weeds. Blue racers hide in that cheat grass. Ever laid eyes on a blue racer?”


“They’re snakes.”

“I know.”

“Know how fast they run?”

“Run? Snakes crawl.”

“Not a blue racer!” He jumped back. Puffs of dust sprayed from beneath his scuffed Buster Browns. “I just seen one pokin’ its slimy head out. Ya gotta watch out.”

I looked at the dirty cloud painting his shoes and then at the menacing weeds. He stepped forward. His index finger stabbed the air in front of my nose.

“Blue racers can outrun ya. Big, mean snake. Don’t never let one take out after ya ‘cause, bein’ poison, it’ll getcha.”

“I have to go.”

He picked up a baseball-sized rock.

“I’ll keep an eye on the weeds. If one pops out, I’ll nail ‘im. You skeered?”

I glanced at the distant chicken coop and the snake-infested weeds.

“I’ll walk down to the corner with you.”

“You ain’t no fraidy-cat, is you?”


“Prove it.”

I stood still. He stomped his foot, spit out the twig.

“Damn you! Run!”

I bolted. Cinders flew from beneath my PF Flyers. Snake-infested weeds blurred past my bouncing eyes. I heard his horsy laugh and a loud bang. I glanced back. The rock tumbled from the garage roof and crashed in the brome. Another motion raised my eyes. One of the wizen-faced witches stood at the second-story window, her evil eyes staring a spell at me. My heart stopped still. My legs lost all thought of motion. Then the witch’s bony fingers grasped the curtains and yanked them shut.

I hightailed it home.

• • •

On a warm southwest Missouri day, I was tossing a red rubber ball on the tarpaper pantry roof when the door flew open and Mom burst into sunlight wearing a brown rubber apron and black rubber gloves that sheathed her arms to the elbows. Her right hand gripped a hatchet. Before I could ask, she stormed past, strode alongside the clothesline to a weathered oak stump, and drove the blade deep. She hastened to the chicken coop, disappeared inside, and came out a few minutes later, a speckled hen hanging by its legs from her left hand. The upside down bird’s wings thrashed the air as mom swung it back and forth. I edged closer.

“Stand back, Davy.” She slammed the bird down on the stump and her right hand took hold of the hatchet and raised it shoulder high. Sunlight flashed across its sharpened edge. The heavy blade fell like a hammer and the bird lost its head. The rest of it flew from the stump and hit the ground running. Blood gushed from its neck. It darted toward the house, veered right, and swung a crazy circle around a clothesline pole.

“It’s still alive!” I yelled.

Twice more it circled the pole, each orbit tighter than the last, and then it stiffened and fell over.

At dinner Cathy, my big sister, said the fried chicken smelled “deevine,” her new favorite word. I sculpted mashed potatoes into a volcano, filled the cone with hot buttered corn, and took a golden breast from the plate. Mom said grace and we dug in.

Later, she dialed the radio to the Bob Hope Show. I sat next to her on the couch. She put her arm around me.

“I hope he’s funny tonight. I need a good laugh. I made a big mistake today.”

“You did?”

“I never should’ve killed that hen. It hadn’t laid an egg in weeks. I figured she’d retired from the egg-laying business, but when I opened her up, there were lots. She would’ve have given us plenty for trade.”

“It tasted good.”

She sighed and stroked my hair. “Reminds me of your father’s.”

“Mom, who lives in the big house across the alley?”

“Betty says two sisters.”

“They kinda give me the creeps.”

“Mind yourself and stay away from them, Davy. I hear they’re very old and they don’t need kids pestering them.” She turned up the volume. “Show’s starting.”

• • •

An oil portrait of Dad in his captain’s uniform hung on the wall alongside my bed. A German POW at Camp Crowder painted it. Mom said she wanted me to remember what Dad looked like so I’d know him when he came home. His likeness may have been true, but his stern expression gave me the willies. On moonlit nights his dark uniform and hair blended into shadows on the wall. The remaining pale curves of his flesh bulged out. Framed by owlish white circles, his piercing black eyes glared into me. I never told Mom.

I had last seen Dad when I was five and my few memories of him were fading fast: his hand guiding me up the stairs to our apartment above the Walcott’s house during a thunderstorm, his towering figure leaning over me as he tilted a beer bottle to my boy lips, his slender chest heaving with each persistent cough.

After a year at Camp Crowder, the army shipped Dad off to a VA hospital in Denver and then to one in Tucson, where the doctors said the desert air would dry up his TB. By then Mom had taken a job sewing overalls at the Big Smith factory, and we’d moved into a two-story house on Fulton Street. We didn’t have a car, and she liked the balance of being within a few blocks of her work and the corner grocery store.

I rolled away from the painting and pulled the sheet up to my chin. I thought of how great the chicken tasted, how I could tell Elmer, and I wondered what happened to its little head.

• • •

At the east end of town a bunch of trailers huddled beneath clusters of oaks and pines. A few primroses dotted Cozy Acres’ graveled grounds. Wally and his mom lived in an Airstream Clipper that looked like a breadbox on wheels. One morning in October Wally’s dad left for work toting his rocket-shaped Blackhawk Tool Kit and never came back.

I only visited Wally’s home a few times, and we never played inside the cramped mobile. Rows of closely spaced trailers and gravel walkways weren’t much better. Wally biked over to my house when we became best friends. We played catch, kick-the-can with kids in my neighborhood, and any game that popped into our heads. On summer evenings we punched air holes in the lids of washed pickle bottles and trapped lightning bugs. Flickering lanterns in hand, we crept around the backyard, searching for the Man in the Moon.

“Let’s get some gas and burn those weeds,” I said, nudging his ribs.

He rolled his eyes. “Why?”

“Aw, I was just kiddin’.”

• • •

In the quiet night, rainbows from unseen rains painted the aging leaves of elms, maples, ashes, and hickories. Their flaming colors dazzled us for days. Then the leaves fell, one by one. On my way to school, I scampered through deep drifts of crisp leaves.

November winds swayed the groaning arms of naked trees and whisked the pungent smell of raked leaves burned in barrels to places unknown. Wally and I retreated indoors. We both loved reading, though unlike my Classics Illustrated or Kid Colt comics, he favored sci-fi magazines.

“We’re gonna have atomic cars when we grow-up and fly from place to place,” he said the day after Thanksgiving. We were sitting cross-legged on the floor. “I read all about it in Grandpa’s Mechanics Illustrated.”

“I thought atomic was for bombs.”

“You hear the Russians got one? Grandpa said so. Find China on your map.”

I skipped into the dining room and hurried back with the tin globe I kept on a corner table. I set it between us, turned the metal ball, and pointed to a large yellow patch.

“But—Grandpa said it was red. He even took the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Maybe he’s color blind, like my cousin Johnny-With-the-Hair-on-His-Chest. He says red’s green.”

We spun the rattling continents until Wally said he wanted to see if chicken feet froze on cold ground. Frost-crusted grass crunched beneath our shoes as we crossed stiff blades on the way to the coop. The cold illuminated Wally’s cheeks. He leaned on the honeycombed wire and studied a rooster pecking the frigid ground in search of stray kernels.

“Feet don’t look frozen to me,” I said.

“I bet it’s got some kinda heat shield.” He pushed off the wire. “I didn’t tell you ‘bout the other thing. We’ll park our flying cars, go into our houses, and punch buttons on the wall. Zap!” He snapped his fingers. “Fried chicken’ll come out.”

“Who’s gonna to make it?”

“Machines in the wall, I guess.”

He blew steam into his cupped white hands and shoved them into his pockets. I wondered how the wall machines would kill the chickens. Would they use little chicken guillotines or mechanical Elmer hands?

A gray trail of smoke drifted skyward from the old ladies’ chimney. I envied their coziness, taking in heat beside a glowing fireplace.

• • •

Wally and I exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve Day. Sitting on the carpeted floor in the front room, I smiled as he opened Tinkertoys.

“Good, huh?” I said.

“Oh, yeah!”

He slid across the floor a shoebox-sized package wrapped in butcher paper and bound by a red ribbon. Inside was a wooden truck. There were two stainless steel milk cans with handles on a little running board. A stocky round-headed man in white stood behind the steering wheel. He was pale, like Wally. He even had little red circles on his cheeks. I wondered how he could stand and drive.

“Mom picked it out,” he murmured, his eyes downcast.

“I like it,” I fibbed.


“Sure. Maybe later you can build a garage for it.”

The front door opened. Mom bustled in and set two shopping bags down on the maple dining room table. She looked at us while shedding her brown and yellow babushka.

“I bet you two’d like some oatmeal cookies and milk.” She unbuttoned her brown overcoat.

Cathy slinked in, wearing a sly sisterly smile, hands behind her back.

“Betty took Mom and me shopping, and I got you something.”

“Lemme see.” I started to get up.

“Stay there.” Her large hand outstretched like a traffic cop’s.

“What is it?”

“It’s a surprise. Close your eyes. You too, Wally.”

I clamped my eyes tight and heard floorboards creak closer. Then, I heard a record drop and Gene Autry sang, “Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose …”

“You got it!”

“Oh, boya,” Wally said. “I love this song.”

Cathy laughed. Mom came in with milk and cookies. Between bites, gulps and smiles, we sang along.

• • •

I kicked an empty Jolly Green Giant can across the backyard while Mom unpinned the clothes she’d hand-washed the day before. Left out overnight, they were as rigid as boards. She’d forgotten all about them yesterday when shrill sirens and flashing lights set the air afire.

We’d stood alongside the alley with our next-door neighbors, Betty and her husband, Little Ed, and gaped at the acrid clouds of black smoke billowing from the Victorian’s windows. An ambulance howled up the alley, turned into our makeshift field, and skidded to a stop near third base. Two men leapt out and jerked open the rear doors. They reached inside, pulled out a canvas, wooden-poled stretcher, and rushed toward the side porch where a fireman waved them inside.

“May God have mercy,” Mom said, crossing herself and directing me back to our house.

Now Mom unhooked the rigid clothes. I ducked under the line and kicked the Jolly Green Giant toward the coop. Betty, who was tall and thin and angular, and who traded vegetables for eggs, must’ve been spying out her window because all of a sudden she was hurrying over. In summer she and Little Ed rested on three-legged wooden stools at the end of a garden row and munched red onions. She once offered me a ripe one, and I ran away.

She and Mom hauled the frosted laundry inside, laid the frozen garments across oilcloth on the dining room table, and shrugged off their coats. Mom said there was fresh coffee. I shed my coat, plopped down on a rag rug near the kitchen, and thumbed a Superman comic.

“Little Ed talked to Ben Garrison. Ben axed the door,” Betty said.

I scooted a few inches closer and leaned an ear toward them.

“Which one?”

“Older one. Name of Catherine.” Betty bent her head and lowered her voice. “Say she was dead ‘fore they got there. Smoke.”

“Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Mom crossed herself and shook her head. She poured a stream of cream into her coffee and stirred in a level teaspoon of sugar.

“If the fire trucks hadn’t raced there lickety-split, well, Lord only knows—they found Marie balled up by one of the walls, chokin’ for air. And you know what else?”


Betty put her elbows on the table and clasped her hands as in prayer. “They was so poor they couldn’t ‘ford heat. They’d ripped the upstairs floorboards out and throwed ‘em in the fireplace.” She made a clucky sound with her tongue and leaned back in the chair. “Don’t know how they found the strength. Ben said all they had in their cupboard was a few cans of green beans and corn and a half sack of potatoes and a few eggs and a stick of butter in the ice box. Can you believe it?”

“Didn’t they have children?”


“I’m going to light a candle for Marie.”

“Ed says she’ll be in the hospital a right long time.”

“She’ll be warm.”

“Yes, she will.”

“I’ll say a rosary for her, too.”

“Bet she’d like that even if—I think—she’s a Holy Roller.”

Mom shook her head. “You just don’t know do you, what hardship we’ll see in this world. But the Good Lord always has his reasons.”

“Amen to that.”

• • •

The diffuse light of a cold January day dimmed into darkness. Mom was sitting in a big green chair in the living room, knitting a brightly colored Afghan that was slowly inching across her lap. Cathy and I hunched over the dining room table playing Clue, one of my Christmas gifts that Santa had left under our tree, though the eighth grade cursive on its little to-and-from card had a brunt-bearing slant that looked a lot like Mom’s.

“Colonel Mustard,” Cathy said as the phone rang, “diditinthekitchenwithawrench. I’ll get it.” She dashed across the room. A little wooden phone table and a straight-backed chair stood in front of two tall windows. I slid the answer cards out of the black envelope.

“It’s long distance from Tucson, Mom. There’s a lot of static.” Mom shoved the Afghan aside and hurried in. Cathy handed her the phone, and Mom perched on the edge of the chair. Cathy stood beside her, a hand on Mom’s shoulder.


“Who is it?” I said.

“Oh, dear God! No!” She dropped the phone and fell forward, hit the floor hard, and squirmed like a hooked fish. It scared the bejeezus out of me, seeing Mom sprawled on her back, wild eyed, nose running. “Dear God, what have I done to deserve this?” she cried as her fists assaulted the hardwood floor, her mouth so twisted she was nearly smiling.

“Mama,” Cathy said. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She sank to her knees and her skinny arms reached out. “Mother—” and then she heard a staticky voice and she reached down and retrieved the phone. “Yes,” she murmured. “Okay.” She pulled open the drawer in the table and withdrew a notepad and a pen, wrote something down. “Call tomorrow.” She hung up and her tear laden eyes looked at me.

I fanned the cards. “You won again.”

• • •

The ringing woke me. I tossed under twisty blankets, drifting off until the harsh sound started up again. I rolled out of bed and padded to their bedroom, the linoleum icy beneath my bare feet. Mom always turned down the heat at night. I stood at the foot of the four-poster bed. Cathy and Mom were snoring.

I tiptoed back to my room and put on slippers and a terrycloth robe over my pajamas. I crossed the short hall. The slick oak railing guided me as I crept down the dark staircase. For just a second, standing alone on the last step, our dark and quiet house felt spooky. Then the piercing trill enlivened my nerves. I edged toward its jolting echoes and stared at the chunky blackness, illuminated by faint moonlight. The receiver looked like dog ears. It rang again and jangled my brains.


“Hiya, Buddy,” he said.


“I don’t have much time, so listen carefully. I want you to be a good boy.”

“I will.”

“Promise me that you’ll always take good care of Mom and Cathy.”

“I will. Dad?”

“What is it, David?”

“Is it warm there? In Arizona?”


“It’s cold here.” I shivered, trying to imagine warm Tucson light streaming through our frosted panes.

“Remember, Son, I love you always. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” I said as the dial tone hummed.

I kept my back to his portrait as I crawled into bed. The sheets were cold. I pulled my knees up to my stomach and the woolen army blanket over my chin.

I woke up late, dressed without bathing, wet my hands and slicked down my wild hair. I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on my socks and slipped into my shoes, tying the laces tight. I stood and stared at Dad’s portrait. He looked sad.

Mom sat at the kitchen table. Her red eyes blinked through me. The corners of her mouth curved into the weakest outline of a smile. She turned her head and stared at the cold stove. I poured Wheaties into a bowl and drowned them in milk. Cathy came in and sat in the chair next to Mom. She touched Mom’s hand, looked at me, and said, “Uncle Joe’s driving in from Pennsylvania.”

“When’s he gonna get here?”


I finished the cereal, slipped into my red-and-white plaid jacket, pulled on my black hat with the flaps that warmed my ears, gloved my hands, and went out. The steely sky was frozen hard; spiky grass crunched underfoot. Uncle Joe would probably sleep in the spare bed in my room.

I hiked past the silent chicken coop, cut across the alley, and stepped into the big yard. Buttonball fruits hung from the sycamore like brown bulbs on a dried-up Christmas tree. A layer of frost fuzzed home plate. I slid the tip of my shoe across it. Something mean and ugly was beating up my insides. A curtain of smoky black stain rose from the smashed downstairs windows. Firemen had fought flames. Dad would’ve helped. He’s a soldier.

A light snow began to fall.

I hopped over wheel-scarred ground, marched to the rear of the house, and stood by the downy brome. Two dark and empty smoke-stained upstairs windows stared down at me. I felt lightheaded-yet-heavy, half-blinded by thickening snow. Icy air stole my breath’s steaming vapors as I bent down and picked up baseball-size rocks, their weight hefty in my gloved hands.


The following summer I turned eight and Mom bought a TV when we moved into a modest stone house at the corner of Clevenger and Forest Streets, our third home in five years. Mom and Cathy shared the downstairs bedroom. I had a cozy hideout in the finished attic. Only one drawback: my bedroom roasted in summer. Had there been a thermometer on the wall, it would have exploded; Cacti would have wilted. I waited until bedtime to go up, only wore my underpants to bed, and slept on top of the sheets. Woolen army blankets kept me toasty in winter.

Our other homes were close to downtown, Mom’s work, school, and St. Ann’s. With the stone house we’d landed in a nicer neighborhood across town, but Mom’s easy stroll to work turned into an arduous hike. For a year she depended on Bertha, a co-worker, for rides and on obliging parishioners for rides downtown and to church. Then, at Cathy’s urging, Mom decided to buy a car.

• • •

Herman Davis was a round man in an ill-fitting short sleeve white shirt. A wide red tie brightened his chest. His well-oiled, spiky crew cut glistened beneath bright lights.

“Mighty fine choice you made for a family sedan,” he said. “Sure am glad you came to Herman Davis Auto instead of buyin’ in Joplin.”

“Are the prices cheaper there?” Mom said.

He cleared his throat. “Uh-uh. Same car, same price.”

“Then why would I go to Joplin?”

“My point exactly.” He rubbed his dimpled hands together. “Just a few papers for you to look at. Don’t want any surprises, right? First one tells why we’re the finest dealership in Southwest Missouri. No deal we can’t beat. No hitch we can’t fix.” He passed her a sheet of paper and glanced at Cathy and me. “Fine lookin’ kids you got.” He rolled his chair back to the wall, twiddled his fat thumbs, and hummed “The Tennessee Waltz.

She looked over the paper, and then laid it on the desk. He pushed off the wall, rolled forward, and peeled another sheet from a pile of papers about half as thick as a skinny comic book. This one had tightly packed sentences top to bottom.

She read slowly. Every so often she frowned and asked Cathy for help with a word. Mom wasn’t stupid or anything. She had crossed the Atlantic when she was a kid and could speak fluent Czech when she was around relatives. She finished eighth grade before her parents yanked her out of school so she could take a job as a maid. She read the Press, made the best lemon meringue pie, and knew more prayers than Father Mark.

This car buying business was taking forever. I aimed my Winchester like John Wayne in Stagecoach and drilled precise holes in windows. Then, I kneaded and rounded Herman the way Mom shaped Easter loaves and dribbled the squealing car salesman across the showroom floor. I wanted to tell her, but I knew she’d frown and say I shouldn’t daydream mean things, so I rounded up my joy low in my throat, lassoed a stray giggle, and fidgeted.

The fun part had been when Herman carted us outside, where a row of six identical mint green cars eyed the street. Mom picked one from the middle. I thought we’d climb in and head home, but she sealed her lips and didn’t even shuffle her feet. She just stared at the lustrous Plymouth.

“Let’s take a closer look,” Herman said.

He squeezed behind the steering wheel, turned the ignition key, and roused the engine. Wipers smeared the dusty windshield, headlights paled in sunshine, and the horn’s piercing sound set a dog sleeping in a corner of the lot to howling. Then Herman’s hefty hand gripped the knobbed lever sticking out from the steering wheel, and he shifted through the gears, focusing our attention on how precisely he worked the clutch pedal.

Smiling, he eased out. Mom, always suspicious of leaks, opened and shut all four doors before we followed Herman’s busy voice back inside and sat in a line in front of his desk.

“Your price is twenty dollars too high,” Mom said when the paper avalanche ended.

He frowned, scooped up a brochure from the corner of his desk, and deftly displayed three glossy pages confirming the Plymouth’s 1951 state-of-the-art workmanship.

“Maybe I should go to Joplin.”

That cinched it. He uncapped a Parker fountain pen, altered the amount due, and passed the pen to her.

“Sooo, I s’pose you want the keys.” He chuckled as if he’d just told a clever joke, then slid back to the wall and snatched a small set of keys dangling from a hook on a pegboard. “Here ya go.” He laid the keys in front of her. She looked at them, inked the check, and handed it to him. He centered it near the bottom of his desk and the tips of his thick fingers smoothed the already smooth paper, the way Doc Griffin stroked my neck when I had mumps.

“You can take ’er away, Mary.”

“I don’t drive.”

He looked mighty thunderstruck, and for some reason this was news to me too, though I’d never thought about it.

“But, you just bought a car.” He glanced around. “Someone comin’ to drive you?”

“I expect you to teach my daughter.”

“Me!” His chair shot back and thumped the wall, jangling keys hanging like little swordfish. Cathy gasped.

Right then an urgent need hit. I crossed my legs tightly, like I did during a Charlie Chan movie when I’d prayed for a commercial. Before I could ask where to go, Mom said, “She paid for her Missouri license with a Bennie Franklin yesterday. All she needs is a few lessons. This is a small town, Mr. Davis. You don’t want people saying you took advantage of a widow by selling her a car she can’t drive.” She smiled and patted her perm.

“There’s talk of a driving test.”

“I heard about that, but the man at the Courthouse—Cathy, show Mr. Davis your license.”

He pushed his puffy hands toward us. “No need, no need.” He cleared his throat and ran his hand down his tie. “This is all fine and good, but most folks usually, ah, sort of get it home, or out to the farm, and then learn on their own.”

“I want my daughter to have proper training. The car will leave here when she can drive it or I’ll have my check back.”


“Just a minute, Davy.”

Herman surveyed my beanpole sister and forced a bitter smile. Cathy and Mom smiled, and so did I.

“When’s a good time to start?” he said.

“What’s wrong with right now?” She looked across the showroom. At the far end, a spindly salesman in a baggy white short-sleeved shirt and broad red tie leaned against a doorjamb, cleaning his fingernails with the blade of a pocketknife. “Besides, maybe she’ll get the hang of it like she did makin’ cakes.”

“I gotta go,” I said, tugging Mom’s arm.

“Men’s room’s ‘round the corner.” Herman pointed. I stood up. “Wait!” His bulbous eyes bulged as if he’d just seen the Wolf Man or a blue racer.

The spindly man folded his knife and looked at me impishly. Then I knew Herman had seen my bouncy thoughts. They’d been mixing with the air and just now swept into his globular brain.

“Maybe you’d like to take him to the Ladies,” he said, as if nothing strange had just happened and he was telling Mom where she’d find a cold Dr. Pepper.

“Davy’s big enough to go by himself.” Mom snapped her large patent leather purse.

I hurried to the men’s room and unzipped. Standing at the urinal, greatly relieved, I looked at the wall to my right and my eyes popped. I quick-washed my hands, shook them dry, and eyeballed the picture. I could hardly wait to tell Larry and Charlie Seven about the leggy lady on the calendar, though not Mom. She’d brain Herman a good one with her purse and march me over to see Father Mark for confession.

Back in the chair, I gazed out the big showroom window and the Plymouth rolled by with Herman at the helm. I wished they’d hurry up. I counted nineteen sets of hooked swordfish twice, then tilted my head back and followed the flight of a loud bumble bee as it buzzed like a Sabre jet across the white ceiling.

A flashy green bronco bucked by with Cathy in the saddle. The spindly man’s mouth sprung open and he danced a fine, short jig. The yellow tailed jet zoomed out over his head. Mom watched stone-faced and handed me a stale stick of Wrigley’s.

Cathy finally burst in squawking louder than an agitated blue jay. She swooped down, wrapped her skinny arms around Mom’s neck, and half strangled her. Herman teetered in, patting his forehead with a hanky, mumbling about a few more lessons. Mom freed herself, thanked him, and asked if she could use the phone to call kind Father Mark for a ride.

• • •

Cathy mastered the clutch in one after-school lesson and steered our pristine steed to each of her girlfriend’s houses before she found her way home.

Near the end of July Mom bought her own license and reckoned her daughter would teach her. The following Saturday we piled into the Plymouth. Cathy drove to a lonely country road and pulled onto a rocky shoulder. Off to our right, half a dozen Holsteins lazed in the shade of broad oaks by a twisty creek. I imagined a wagon train heading west. I was their trusty scout, on lookout for marauding Comanche.

A horn tooted and Mr. Graham’s gleaming blue Olds whizzed by. His shoe store had a four-foot-high walnut-veneer box with an x-ray machine inside. Standing on a small, wooden platform, I once stuffed my feet into shoe-sized caves, flipped a switch, and a greenish-yellow glow exposed bony puzzles in my feet.

Cathy and Mom switched seats, stumbling on the bumpy ground, laughing as they touched the warm hood to steady themselves. Before turning the key Mom rubbed the St. Christopher medal hanging on a silver chain from the rearview mirror. The engine fired right up, quiet, just as it had for Mr. Davis. Mom depressed the clutch and shifted into first.

“Gas, then release the clutch” Cathy said.

Mom fed the engine. The car hiccupped and hopped once or twice before we gained speed.

“Shift into second and go easy on the clutch.”

I was impressed. Mom was zipping right—Good God! Her go for second sounded like nails on a blackboard. I cringed and covered my ears with my hands. The car sputtered and conked out. She started over. The cantankerous Plymouth bucked like a rodeo bronco. She started over again and again.

Cathy lost her marbles and lashed out: “Let the clutch out slowly! More gas! Less gas! Don’t ride the clutch!”

Just when I thought poor Mom would give up, she murmured prayers I knew and some I didn’t know and miraculously found second gear. The car coughed and stuttered as we crawled down the road, an ailing turtle pursuing Mr. Graham’s robust hare.

“More gas! Don’t stall!”

Mom sealed her lips and sped up. The laboring engine whined.


Her bid for third gear foiled when the sun’s fierce rays emerged from behind a cloud and set the shimmering green hood afire.

“Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph! I’m blind!”

Her white knuckled hands steered us willy-nilly across lanes. St. Christopher slapped the windshield.

“Stop the car!”

Mom’s short legs punished the pedals and a small cloud of dust announced our arrival on the shoulder. Slammed against the side of the coach, I looked out the open window. Big black eyes stared at me through rusty barbed wire. Then an imperturbable Comanche disguised as a Holstein lowered its head and munched grass.

• • •

They never practiced together again. Instead, Mom enlisted Father Mark, and after a handful of prayerful lessons, he taught her how to subdue the Plymouth’s obstinate unsynchronized transmission. I thought she’d drive herself to work, but Bertha still picked her up every weekday morning. Cathy took us to Sunday mass, me to and from Little League practices and games, herself to school, and I don’t know where else. Aside from one trip to Foster’s to buy me clothes, Mom only drove to Kroger’s for the week’s groceries, her hands molded to the sweaty wheel, her stubborn chin jutting forward. Each time she smoothly shifted, her mouth curled into a quarter-moon smile. A few years later my life took an unexpected turn when a man from Ohio visited, and Mom pursed her license and never drove again.


Only a block long, Clevenger Street ran downhill from S. Garrison Street, making it a fine sled run. We started at Larry’s, near the top, and whizzed down. The hill petered out alongside my picket-fenced backyard, giving us lots of time to drag our feet and stop before we slid into Forest Street. Even so, we posted a lookout for cars. The previous year, Charlie Seven made a brazen, ill-advised run on a ribbon of fast ice. He blasted off as soon as his sled touched down and rocketed downhill at speed never before seen. Neither the gently sloping ground alongside the picket fence or his foot sliding on shiny ice slowed his lickety-split momentum. He zoomed by me yelling “Mommy! Mommy!” shot across the street, and steamrolled to a stop yards inside a weedy, snow-covered vacant lot.

In warmer weather a footpath cut through the vacant lot to a high-banked narrow creek. To our right, the creek flowed under a barbed wire fence and wandered across a long, wide cow pasture before it emptied into a small deep pond that iced over in the winter.

Larry Norwood, Leon Zubeck, and I were the usual “we.” Larry and I were teammates on the Southern Auto Little League team. His arm proved too weak for the outfield or third base, his stature too slight for catching or first base, so Coach Andy put him at second base. His anemic batting average mired him at the bottom of our line-up, but his smooth play in the field opened Andy’s eyes wide with surprise. Larry’s glove sucked up ground balls as though the seamed, red-stitched, white orbs were windblown globs of calcified dust and his leathered hand a powerful vacuum cleaner.

Tall, licorice-haired Leon didn’t play baseball. He played basketball. He worked on his parents’ farm during the summer and gained biceps every boy in my class envied.

We jumped the slender creek and followed a trail into the woods, passing through thin foliage of young birch and hawthorn, giant foxtail, and scattered thistle. Before heading into deeper woods, we paused and again regarded a thigh-high drystone wall. We reckoned an ambitious, muscular pioneer had crafted it to mark his land. The fence ran alongside a mature row of dogwoods, a natural boundary for sun and wind relief.

“Can'tcha just see this bein’ a battleground?” Larry said.

“Sure can,” I said, picking up a small, jagged rock, imagining Union soldiers crouched behind the wall, their long rifle barrels pointing toward Johnny Rebs in the black willows by the creek.

“Could be from the big battle,” Larry said, squinting.

“That happened over by the river,” Leon said.

“Yeah, back in 1851,” Larry said, shading his eyes. "’Bout the time old Quantrill’s Raiders burned down the town."

“The Civil War wasn’t until 1861,” Leon said, playfully adding, “And I never heard it was Quantrill’s bushwhackers that lit up the town.”

They set to arguing. I threw the rock sidearm at some yellow clover woven into fence. I reckoned Leon was right since there were times when I thought he might be smarter than Charlie Seven, although Confederates of some sort had burned down most of Carthage during the Civil War, but I didn’t want to take sides.

“Let's go,” I said.

We marched single file past the candelabra arms of silent dogwood sentries.

“I meant 1861,” Larry said.

The trail led us to a bright open area at the bottom of a hill, the hospital’s rear lawn at the top without cover for our hiding games. After we discovered the exposed refuse heap of soiled and broken bed pans, stained bandages, and spent needles we never went back.

“Germs, worms, and blood,” Larry shouted, running.

A narrow path, worn smooth by an army of parading rabbits, angled in from the left and joined ours. We’d traced the bunny trail weeks earlier and come upon the foundation of an old burned-out building. Further on, we stood on a high bank upstream, leaned against willows, and peered across the creek and into the backyards of three single-storied houses. After a while, Charlie Seven, who was with us, said we should go because Connie lived in one of the houses, and folks might mistake us for Peeping Toms.

I peeled off from Leon and Larry and started up the rabbit path.

“Hey, where you goin’?” Larry said.

“Down this way.”

“What for?”

“Be just a minute. Wanna check out good hiding places.”

We toted BB guns when we played Yanks and Rebs, and I wanted to find a new spot to spring an ambush. Summer was ending. Once school started, our visits to the woods would be infrequent. With winter, they would cease. I wanted to go out with a bang.

“Well, hurry up,” he said, as if we were on a train schedule.

I bent over, pushed aside a tangle of bushes, and froze solid.

A huge orange-and-black spider lay in the middle of a gigantic web between bent arms of a bramble. I jerked upright. My stomach did a double flip. I was breathless, soundless, rooted. Stretched across a web of zigzagging X’s, the spider's long black legs turned bright red near its shiny egg-shaped body. Motionless, it waited for the filament’s telltale quiver to announce its next meal.

“C’mon,” Larry said. “Whadya doin’?”

His words fractured my spell. I turned halfway toward him, peripherally viewing the spider. “It’s gigantic!”


“It, it’s—.” Amazement softened my voice. “God, it’s big.”

They dashed to my side.

“Wow!” Larry’s eyes popped wide, the way they had the first time he saw Billy Hitchcock’s curveball. His hand moved toward the web.

“Careful—could be poisonous.”

He jerked his arm back. “Bet it is.”

Leon looked over Larry’s shoulder. “Think we can trap it?”

“No,” I said. The spider was perfect: foreboding, frightening, even beautiful. “It’s too big. It might bite us.”

“Yeah, way too big,” Larry said. “I ain’t touchin’ it.”

We watched the spider awhile longer, leaning forward as far as we dared. Finally, I said, “Let’s go.”

Leon was last to turn away before we regrouped and trudged in silence along the base of the hill, away from the creek, into cooler musty air. Shifting shadows danced across narrowing trails, at first translucent with shafts of sunlight dappling honeysuckle, then much darker and still, like a cool, deep cellar.

Behind us, the spider bathed in soft forest light, waiting.

• • •

Anger pinched my eyes when I saw the Mason jar on Mrs. Martin’s desk. Six holes punched through its tin lid. Limp grass scattered across the bottom; the leggy spider sideways on the curved glass.

Mrs. Martin stood on the foot high platform that held her desk and lifted the jar chin high. The padded shoulders of her white blouse bunched. “This is a fine example of a very large Argiope.” She peered over the rim of her black rhinestone glasses, as she always did to stress a point. “Leon found it and brought it in so we could all see it.”

I zeroed in on him, two rows over, the traitor’s broad smile proud. I glared, but he was too busy basking to notice.

“How’d ya do it?” I asked at lunch.

“Easy. I just put the jar underneath real careful like, lifted it quick, and slapped on the lid."

He pantomimed his treachery.

“Wha’dya gonna do with it?”

He cradled his chin between his thumb and forefinger, his rascally eyes studying the tiled ceiling.

"Maybe plug up the holes and watch it die. Cut it up."

“You wouldn’t.”

He smiled. “I dunno.” His dark eyes softened and his lips curled into a slight smile. “I might let it go.”

Before leaving for the day I paused at the desk. The spider stood near the top of the jar with nowhere to go, his orange-and-black body small and pitiful.

“Wasn’t it nice of Leon to bring it in?” Mrs. Martin looked up from the stack of arithmetic tests she was grading.

I shuffled away silently, recalling how proud I’d felt when I brought in my Play USA game to show her how I’d gotten an A on the state capitals test. Facing her, I lifted the game, like a priest offering an enormous rectangular host. “This is what I used to memorize them.”

Rowdy classmates poured in from the hall. She pushed her glasses up with her middle finger. “Nice,” she said before turning and clapping loudly to quiet them.

In the playground Leon slowly swayed on the middle swing, smiling at his expanding group of admirers, a storyteller father surrounded by adoring children.

I turned away, kicked gravel, and a cloud of dust engulfed my legs. I kicked again, imagined Leon beneath my toe. Why hadn’t he left it alone? Mom always reminded me that watchful God kept a tally of hateful thoughts, even those directed toward non-believers. I looked up at the still gray sky. Maybe He was on vacation. Maybe He wasn’t there, ever.


One windless January morning, a quiet white veil fell over the cold landscape, and the sky vanished. Mrs. Martin shivered, cinched her cardigan a button higher, and peered out the window. Above the door, the newly installed intercom crackled, and a tinny voice said: “Hello Mark Twain school students and teachers. This is Mr. Beasley, Mark Twain Elementary school principal. Due to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, I’m cancelling the remainder of the school day. Be safe going home. Thank you.”

“Yippee!” we roared.

Mrs. Martin whacked her desk with the thick wooden ruler reserved for such occasions.

“The weather is no excuse for sixth graders to go wild. Row one, you may get your coats and be dismissed.”

Some of us were already standing, in place. We squirmed and whispered, girls giggled.

“No snowballing on school grounds,” she said as we scurried out.

Her orders fell on the deaf ears. Cold spheres flew across the vast, white carpeted playground. I hurled hard packed ones until a curtain of large, thick, wet flakes obscured targets and the game lost its fun. I headed home.

I hadn’t worn galoshes, and snow had melted inside my shoes. I peeled off icy-wet socks, toweled my feet, and wiggled my skinny red toes. Cathy stomped in.

“It's really coming down out there,” she said, stamping her big saddle oxfords on the throw rug.

“We got out early.” I pulled fresh warm socks over my chilled feet.

“So did I. Darn.” Clumps of snow had fallen on the hardwood. “I better clean this up before Mom sees it.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t want to admit some of it might be mine.

I spent the afternoon staring out the living room window, drawing stick figures on steamed glass. Pretty Emily Morgan lived next door. Christmas Day she’d invited me over, and we played Scrabble with her parents. A few days later, Mr. Morgan took us to a benefit basketball game between the high school squad and older ex-varsity players who never found the road leading out of town. I spent most of the game glancing at Emily. Once I snuck into the garage and peeked out the rear window. I had a clear sideways view into Emily’s bedroom. My heart beat faster when her back came into good view, naked from the waist up.

I traced her outline in window fog, my finger smoothing curves, dreaming of Emily turning to show me more than her bare back. I was the brave explorer who found her lost in an Arctic blizzard. She was smiling, reaching out to hug me, ready to bare all, when Cathy sneaked into the living room with a textbook. I wiped away Emily’s shapely smudge

All along Forest Street windswept snow climbed tree trunks and fences. Our ice laden Plymouth sported a foot high white pompadour.

“See any cars go by?” Cathy peered out the window, her hand on my shoulder.

“Only a few.”

“I sure hope Mom’s okay.”

“Bertha always gives her a ride.”

“I know, but we don't always get a storm like this. Maybe a plow will come by. This is an arterial residential street.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. I didn’t know what arterial meant, but I got the idea.

Long after the snow quit, an icy beast crawled up the street, its pale, unblinking eyes seeking shelter. Bertha’s Studebaker. Even at slow speed, rear wheels chained, the car slid sideways a bit when it stopped. Mom cautiously climbed out and baby-stepped across the street. The car’s bound tires spun, found traction, and the beast crept into the frigid night.

Knee deep in snow, Mom paused to admire the Plymouth’s new hairdo before she trudged up the walkway, her short legs disappearing and reappearing. She opened the door, closed it, and stamped her feet on the throw rug, shaking loose chunks of snow.

“Where's your sister?”

“In the kitchen. I got out of school before lunch.”

She shed her woolen scarf, slipped out of her heavy brown overcoat, and hung them in the hall closet. Rubbed her hands together briskly and sat next to me on the couch.

“Burr. Cold feet. Bertha’s heater’s on the blink. I've got to get out of these shoes.”

“My feet got cold.”

“Did they get wet walking home?” She was unlacing her shoes.

“Only a little. I put on dry socks. See.”

“I was worried about you and Cathy.”

“She got out early too. Want the towel I used?”

“None of us thought to wear galoshes.” She took the towel, shed her shoes and socks. “Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, my feet like to froze. Bertha’s car put out a little heat for the windshield and not much else.”

“Hi, Mom,” Cathy said. She was holding a jar of applesauce. Her eyes darted to the snow Mom had tracked in. “I’ll clean that up in a sec. I’m fixing potato pancakes.”

Mom either didn’t appreciate the cleaning up business or the dinner selection, for she glared at Cathy.

“Have you seen the car?” she said in her fierce motherly tone.

“The car?” Cathy glanced at the frosted window.

“I’m very disappointed in you, young lady.”

“Why? What’s wrong? Did someone hit it? I didn’t hear anything.”

“Nobody’s hit it yet. Why is the car’s out front?”

“I forgot to put it in the garage this morning.”

“Don’t be a smart aleck!”

“Mother, what are you talking about?”

“It’s buried in snow. What if Bertha had hit it?”

Cathy fidgeted, chewed the inside of her right cheek. “I was going to drive it to school, but Sandra came by as I was leaving and we went in her car. I didn’t know a storm like this one was coming.”

“Well, it came, didn’t it?”

Cathy’s teary eyes cast a quizzical ‘why the major fuss’ my way. I returned a mystified look and tossed in a shrug.

“I’m sorry,” Cathy said.

Mom pulled on dry socks. Her fingers enlivened her toes as she charted the evening.

“After dinner it goes in the garage.”

“The garage! But, there’s a foot of snow out there.”

“Don’t raise your voice to me, young lady. It wasn’t me who left the car out front.”

An enclosed breezeway connected the garage to the house. The driveway was off Clevenger Street. The white carpeted landscape, three-quarter moon, and a streetlight hanging from wires over the middle of the intersection made for good light. The night stole their foggy breaths as they trudged out wearing galoshes and heavy coats and gloves and ear muffs.

I clicked on The Range Rider, then You Asked for It, and looked out the living room window during commercials.

They shoveled and shoveled and shoveled twin paths for tires, and then Cathy started the car and backed up slowly. Then they shoveled again. I yawned when a Charlie Chan movie came on, and glanced outside just as the car, its rear wheel spinning like a top, began to inch up Clevenger Street. They still had a long way to go.

I caught the end of a commercial for M & M’s. Yawned again. Half asleep. I clicked off the TV and crawled upstairs, looked out my bedroom window. They were creeping up the street.

I slipped beneath warm wool blankets, certain I would dream of Emily and sledding.

• • •

Orphaned clouds played peek-a-boo with the sun. The air was surprisingly warm, and big drops of water fell from ice daggers hanging from gutters, punching holes in ground snow. We towed our sleds uphill to Larry’s.

“I got first dibs,” said Connie, a tall, slender, brown-haired tomboy who lived in one of the houses we’d gazed from the woods.

“Sure,” I said.

A Chevy Styleline Deluxe crawled down from Garrison Street. Charlie Seven hopped out and opened the station wagon’s rear door, pulled out a Flexible Flyer and tucked it under his stout arm. Tall and husky, he’d never stepped foot inside a barbershop. His thrifty mom gave him bowl cuts.

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