“Who sings that one?”
“What?” Timmy asked.
“The song,” I asked him again. The beat rolled out of the house and welcomed us as we walked toward Timmy’s front door. The singer sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Who sings it?”
“The Stones, man. You know? Jagger? Richards? My dad kept an old record collection. This was his favorite song. Momma…well she hasn’t gotten around to selling them yet.” We stepped past the well-groomed azaleas in the clay flower pots next to the porch. An old, wooden, white porch swing swayed back and forth in the hot summer breeze.
We walked through the creaking screen door and out of the Lexington heat. The song’s energy intensified as we moved closer to the source. Before that summer, l’d never experienced the rustic beauty of vinyl, I’d never heard “Sympathy for the Devil”, and the Rolling Stones were no more than a vague allusion to things before my time. And I was just a bit too naïve to fully understand the themes of good and evil that the lyrics preached. There was just something about the semi-quick tempo and the words that drew me in like a dog mesmerized by a squirrel in the backyard.
…But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints…
The living room was painted a beat-up burgundy, soaked in the smell of cigarette smoke and knock-off designer perfume. In the middle of it, centered in front of an old 1980s picture tube television, sat a worn out brown leather recliner with a broken handle and cracking cushions. Next to the recliner rested a budget store bedroom night stand that had no business being a living room. A paperback of Ray Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” was laying on the out-of-place night stand with a pack of Parliaments on top of it.
I had no idea who Carver was. Up to that point in my life, except for school work, the only thing I read was the weekly stats for the Chicago Bulls and X-Men comics. The pragmatic yet powerful images Mr. Carver conjured up were still a bit beyond my reach.
“Momma always does this this time of year, so just go with it,” Timmy told me.
The 4th of July was a day away, and people in South Carolina loved their fireworks. They were coming out in droves to buy up all the M80s and bottle rockets and Black Cats they could get their hands on. Timmy was working the Hendricks’ stand down off of Highway 1, and I was over at my old job in the Sno-Biz shaved ice stand down across from the church. We were both making minimum wage, which wasn’t a problem for me. I was sixteen with nothing to worry about other than the gas money I gave to Timmy and whatever booze we could scrounge up on the weekends. My momma was one of the few black elementary school teachers in the district and my dad was a hospital administrator. We were far from rich, but we weren’t close to poor.
Timmy’s situation was a bit tougher. Bobby Wrenwood, Timmy’s dad, had up and walked out on them a few years back. Mrs. Wrenwood was working double shifts at the Jackson Diner six days a week to keep the kids in clothes and put food on the table. His older sister Shelia was a rising sophomore at the University of South Carolina. His little nine-year-old brother Gabe was fat. Much to Mrs. Wrenwood frustration, he stuffed his chubby cheeks with anything he could get his hands on. They had a small house down where Old Orangeburg Road met up with Old Barnwell. In the summers, Shelia would come home and do administrative work for a local contractor to help Mrs. Wrenwood out with the bills. Now that Timmy was sixteen, he wanted to help too, so he got the job at the Hendricks’ stand. Half of whatever he made went to the electric bill. The other half took care of the Cut-Loose.
Timmy had this dusty gold ‘87 two-door coupe Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Most saw it as a rear-wheel drive, V8, gas guzzler; but to us, it was a thing of beauty. We didn’t see how impractical or run down it was. All we saw was freedom. It was our escape. We could hop in it and drive away to wherever the hell we wanted to go. We could cut loose and just be free.
And “freedom” was a word that rumbled deep in Timmy’s soul. Sadly, his sister had taken out every possible loan, had some scholarship money, and was still struggling to pay for school and rent. With Bobby running off the way he did, there weren’t enough funds coming in the house anymore to feed the family of four. There were no resources left to help Timmy escape. He would never be free the way that I could, the way most of us at Lexington High knew we would be one day. The song in his soul was all he had.
My parents didn’t think I was ready to have a car yet based on the irrelevant fact that I’d gotten two tickets in my dad’s truck a month after I got my license. “Your insurance is through the roof,” they told me while my little sister Patricia pointed and giggled. Apparently, I wasn’t driving any time soon; so Timmy and the Cut-Loose were my bread and butter. Timmy and I had shared everything anyway since I met him in the 4th grade. Sharing the car didn’t seem like a big jump from our usual thing.
On this day, the 3rd of July, he had me come over to his house for dinner to share in his misery. His mom got a little emotional around this time of year. Mrs. Wrenwood was off work today. She was already making us dinner. Bobby Wrenwood had left them on the 6th. Timmy always needed the extra emotional support to hold the house together.
Off in some out-of-sight back room I could hear the needle being dragged over a new record, a tune that Timmy played in the Cut-Loose a lot: Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love” was now starting off, bouncing off the walls and echoing throughout the house. We could hear the record occasionally skipping. Bobby Wrenwood’s music collection wasn’t in pristine condition, obviously.
Mrs. Wrenwood appeared from the darkened hallway. There was an unlit cigarette hanging from her ruby painted lips and a blue and yellow sundress with huge flower petals clung to her body. One time I overheard my dad say that she reminded him of a Van Halen video girl that had “gone to pot.” My mom hit him on the arm for the comment. Didn’t realize until I was fifteen that he wasn’t talking about drugs; I definitely could see it now. She had big blown out blonde dyed hair with dark roots, a thin figure, and relatively large bags under her eyes. She was attractive, but life had been too hard to the formerly well-maintained Southern Belle. Mrs. Wrenwood lifted her arms towards me, as she often did, to show me that she wanted a hug. I walked over and obliged her. She smelled faintly of smoke, mustard-based barbecue, highly potent perfume, and what I believed to be soil from some potted plants out front. To me, it was the scent of a hard working American mother in the South.
“Y’all watch some TV or somethin’, Tim,” her hard syrupy drawl was somehow elegant. “Lucas, baby,” she said to me, “we’ll have that grill started up and the food on just as soon as Shelia gets in. I know you boys must be hungry.”
“Yes, ma’am, thank you. Thank y’all for having me,” I replied.
“Bless your heart, baby. Don’t mention it.” She grabbed the Parliaments from the out-of-place den-nightstand, shook a blue Bic lighter out of the back of the pack, and walked out onto the front porch for a smoke. I could feel the heat greeting us as the door swung open and took its time shutting behind her. Timmy went to the sliding back door and dragged a garnet and white cooler from the kitchen out next to the grill. When he returned Gabe tumbled out from the back room laughing and knocked into Timmy, sending both of them falling to the couch.
“You roly-poly!” Timmy shouted, laughing.
“Don’t call him that, Tim!” Mrs. Wrenwood said in an uncharacteristically shrill voice from the porch. “I don’t want him getting sensitive about his weight!”
Gabe always had sticky fingers as though he’d just finished eating half-melted candy. His nose was routinely runny, even during the summer. To call him “slightly overweight” was to say Michael Jordan could “kind of play basketball.” The kid was fat. He’d been fat since he was six. He was still fat now, two years later. He seemed to have accepted it even if his mother hadn’t.
“What y’all bring me? I want some firecrackers, Timmy!” Gabe whined dragging out the second half of “Timmy” like he was singing a hymn in church.
“We ain’t brought you nothin’, Piggy Smalls! You gotta drop some pounds before I start givin’ you stuff like that. We had a deal.”
“Momma! Timmy called me fat again and said I can’t have no firecrackers!”
“Tim!” she shouted again. “It’s just baby fat. Leave him alone!” She was in denial.
“Then Momma, he’s the biggest goddamn baby on the planet. We need to get National Geographic down here and get us some of that big time picture money!” Timmy yelled back, shaking with laughter.
She pulled back the screen door nearly tearing it off of its hinges. “Timothy Paul Wrenwood, don’t you dare! Get that baby what he wants!”
“Momma, I had a deal with him. I told him he had to get out and play some or I wasn’t gettin’ him anything. You know that. Callin’ it ‘baby fat’ ain’t gonna make him any thinner! Aren’t you worried about diabetes? Childhood obesity is a killer, woman! I’m tryin’ to set this boy straight.”
She stood in the doorway somehow peering down at us, even though we were both taller than she. The most recent exhale of smoke was pouring out of her nostrils giving her the look of an angry dragon. “Tim, get your narrow tail in that dirty little golden car and go get that boy whatever bottle rockets or Roman candles or whatever else –”
“Momma! It’s the 3rd of July on a Thursday. The streets are packed with people leaving for the weekend. It’ll take me forever to get up there and back, even goin’ the back way.”
Her face was still tight, her eyes still narrow, but her tone was eerily calm. We were trapped in the eye of the hurricane. “Yes, Tim, it is the 3rd of July and you will not start up with me. End of discussion.” When Mrs. Wrenwood reminded her two oldest about the significance of this time of year, they knew the conversation was done. Timmy didn’t say shit. He just shook his head.
“You want me to come with you?” I whispered, fearing the Wrath of Momma Dragon.
“Nah, it’s cool. With traffic right now I’ll be gone a good half-hour, probably longer. Shelia will be home any second, and y’all will probably have the food ready by the time I get back. Just sit tight.”
With his head hanging in defeat, he pushed Gabe to the couch and walked past his mother. She popped him in the back of the head as he slugged by. Seconds later I heard Cut-Loose’s engine rev up and Outkast’s “Elevators” moving slowly through the chorus over noise of the pistons.
…Me and You
Yo’ Momma and Yo’ Cou-sin, too
Rollin’ down the strip on vogues
Comin’ up slammin’ Cadillac doors…
Mrs. Wrenwood leaned down, pushing her cigarette out in a nearby flower pot of azaleas. Lifting the butt and placing it in her pocket she looked up and yelled to Tim as he spun off down the street. “And stop by Piggly Wiggly and get some more barbeque sauce! You know what we like!”
I sat down on the couch. Gabe plopped down on the carpeted floor, his sticky fingers with a death grip around his toy Red Power Ranger. He made jet engine sounds as he flew the tortured plastic action figure through the air. Mrs. Wrenwood came back into the house just in time to catch the ringing of the telephone.
“No, Joe, it’s fine. I’ll come by now and help y’all straighten it out. Okay, bye,” Mrs. Wrenwood sighed as she hung up the receiver. With a gentle grin she looked at me and told me, “There’s always something, Mr. Lucas Murray, I swear. I’m sorry, sweetie, but I gotta get over to the diner just for a second. The books are all messed up and Joe can’t make heads or tails of it all. Poor man is a marvel with a spatula, but about as dumb as a bag of hair when it comes to numbers, bless his heart.”
“Yes’um, it’s okay. I understand. You want me to watch Gabe?”
“No, no. He’ll come on with me. Thank the Lord I didn’t put that chicken on yet. Can you do me a favor, though, and go ahead and get the grill running out back? I should only be gone twenty or so minutes. And when Shelia comes in y’all can just throw the chicken on.”
“Yes’um. No problem.”
She disappeared down the hall to the backroom for a moment and the music went dead. When she returned she pointed to Gabe. Using my knee as support, he pulled himself up. I watched as his sticky fingers and Red Power Ranger went tumbling out the door after his mom.
Once they were gone, it hadn’t really crossed my mind what she’d said and what it really meant. I just grabbed the remote from the recliner cushion and turned the TV to ESPN. The Braves were tied with the Expos, one to one, in the bottom of the sixth. I wasn’t a huge baseball fan. I just wanted something on to keep me company. I walked to the back of the den to the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the wooden patio. A wave of hot air hit me like I was opening an oven door. The patio had seen better days. Its paint was peeling and it’s once crisp plastic lawn furniture was now the color of dingy cream. I looked down at the grass Timmy cut a week ago. It was already growing back. The paint cans he had taken from under the house last week were still laying in a corner. We were planning to get to the deck tomorrow. It took time, but things always got done around that house, somehow.
The grill was a small Kingsford in pretty good shape. A fresh bag of coal and lighter fluid leaned next to it. I reached down and opened up the bag. My back was to the glass door, and as I began pouring briquettes into the bottom of the grill, I heard it sliding open behind me.
“Did you forget something, ma’am?”
“I know I’m older and wiser than you, Luke, but calling me ‘ma’am’ is not necessary or appreciated.”
That definitely wasn’t Mrs. Wrenwood’s voice. And then it all dawned on me. I was here alone with Shelia Alison Wrenwood. It’d been a few months since I’d seen her last. I don’t know how, but I’d apparently figured out a way to forget how much of a sucker punch she could be for me. She was a girl who actually looked good with a sunburn – the complexion on her cheeks and chin took on a bright rosy tint and her tanned shoulders and chest would freckle up. She looked like the women guys in the ‘60s wrote ballads about; the summer girls from the beach towns that always got away – an athletically fit, soft-to-the-touch, firebrand of a muse. And her scent – if pretty had a smell I swear that’d be it. Never too sweet, never too flowery or stale, she just always flowed so easily. I always wondered how many hearts in Columbia she’d broken by now. How many men had been driven mad worried about what she was up to and with whom. Shelia was the kind of girl that your parents would like for you to date, but then immediately regret the decision when they saw her devilish grin. Her smile was that of a siren leading sailors to wreck against the rocks. I gulped at the sight of her. I was sixteen and things were stirring in me deep enough without Shelia getting in my head. Then again, she’d already been in there rattling around for years. She appeared in the doorway sipping from a Budweiser bottle with an American flag for its label.
“No. I thought you were your mom. Hell, she just like left two seconds ago. You had to have passed her.”
She punched me in the arm lightly, slid by me, and sat in a nearby lawn chair. Her leg kicked up casually onto the cooler. She was wearing short white shorts and a small faded Gamecock t-shirt with white canvas sneakers. “Good to see she trusts you not to burn down our house, Luke Murray. And please don’t swear the presence of your elder. That’s disrespectful.”
I set the bag down and faced her. “I go by Lucas now, and everybody in this house swears, except Gabriel of course, but that’s just because he’s nine. I’m sure when he gets some size – no pun intended – he’ll join this cussing club too.”
She gave me a fake gaspe. “Luke! You’re awful.”
I smiled. “I’m only teasin’. I love the boy.” I picked up the lighter fluid and began squeezing the liquid over the coals. When I finally struck a match the fire erupted out towards me a bit. It was clear I’d been a little overzealous in the process. I could hear Shelia behind me not doing a good job at hiding her laughter.
“Shut up,” I said. “It’s fine.”
“No, no,” she cleared her through and sipped the beer. “Didn’t say a word, Chef Boyardee. You’re good to go.”
We sat in silence letting the summer air engulf us as the afternoon quietly approached. The fire was dying down now and I wanted to fill what was beginning to feel like uncomfortable airtime for me. Just as I opened my mouth to speak Shelia popped up from her chair. “Goin’ in the house right quick,” she said.
She disappeared back into the living room and then the dimly lit hallway. I heard the needle on the record again. From the opening filled with horns and strings I knew what was coming: Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come”.
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…
“Lucas,” Shelia shouted to me. “Come here for a sec.”
I was uneasy but curious about what she wanted. Last time I’d laid eyes on her bedroom I couldn’t have been much older than Gabe. The pink of it smacked me all at once. It was all Pepto Bismol pink. No unicorns or Care Bears or any other such little girl nonsense. Just pink sheets and blankets, pillows and pink and white striped wallpaper. A woman lived here sometimes, but a girl lived inside her. There was a poster of scattered colors across a white background hanging above the bed. I would later learn it was a print of a famous Jackson Pollack work.
“That,” she pointed towards the faux canvas, “is my passion.”
“I didn’t know you were studying art. Thought you were into medicine or something.”
“Yeah, I’m in nursing school.” She waved her hand towards the wall. “But this. This is where my heart is, man. The colors, the intricate detail. The form without form. This is what I feel like sometimes when I wake up. Just a white canvas with my emotions all over the place. I want to get out and feel the world. I want to express myself like this, I just want to live, you know? To go to New York or LA or somewhere with life and just experience it all.” She took another sip of beer. “But someone has to help with all of this.” She gestured around the room with her bottle hand. “Someone has to make sure the Wrenwoods don’t fall off and completely become the hicks everyone already knows we are.”
“You aren’t even close to hicks, you know that,” I argued.
She gently touched my shoulder with a free hand flashed her perfect teeth between her parted red lips. My heart nearly erupted. We stood in silence for a moment longer as she adored the print and I remained puzzled by it.
“You have anything like that? A passion?” she asked.
“A passion?” I shrugged. “I guess, yeah, but I don’t know.”
She poked her tiny fist into my ribs. “Well don’t get all bashful on me now. Spill it.”
“Nah, well, I mean –”
“Come with it, Luke.”
“I like to write,” I blurted. It felt ridiculous; don’t know why, but it just felt ridiculous to hear me say it out loud. “Poetry, short stories mostly.”
“You’re artistic?” Her face was beaming at a thousand watts. Her eyes practically twinkled in my direction. “I had no idea. Timmy’s never mentioned that.
Shook my head at the thought. “It’s not exactly something that comes up in every day conversation.”
She nodded biting her lip slightly. “Umm hmm, I know exactly what you mean, hun. The guy I’m hanging out with, Daryl, he doesn’t get it either. Doesn’t see the value in art. Not sure how much he values beyond my hips and breasts, honestly.”
“Didn’t know you were seeing anyone.”
She immediately crinkled her nose at the thought. “I wouldn’t say we’re seeing each other. I mean, we’re hanging out, but seeing each other is dating and I – ”
I laughed. “I wasn’t tryin’ to get all knee deep in your business, Sheila. Calm down.”
She took another pull off of her Budweiser, “Nah, nah. I didn’t think you were. I just mean, I don’t know. Daryl just, I don’t know. He doesn’t get me, you know?”
I wanted to say something profound in that moment, but words failed me as they might for any young man standing in the coral painted bedroom of his childhood crush. Instead we just stood there like a church in prayer, staring at each other silently, awkwardly, as teenagers often do. Shrugging and swirling the beer around in the near empty bottle she headed for the door.
“You’re original, Shelia.”
“What?” she paused in the doorway staring back at me, her nose crinkled and her eyes in a squint.
“It’s not all that easy a thing for some guys to comprehend. You’re complicated as all get out. You’re tough and sharp but, I don’t know… there’s just this soft side about you, too. I’ve seen it in you when you’ve played with Gabe before. Heck, even with me and Timmy a while back when Bobby –” I immediately came to a full halt. I didn’t mean to bring up her dad. It just kind of rolled out of me while I was playing adult, trying to make a grown up point to impress my best friend’s big sister.
“I’m sorry – ”
The beer swayed in her hand as she waved off my apology. “It’s cool, it’s cool,” she told me. “I get where you were going.”
“You’ve just got a thing about you,” I said. “It’s makes guys nervous. It’s hard to pin down.”
Her eyes were large as though she were a deer stuck in high beams. I knew what I was doing, but I kind of didn’t. I was just speaking from the heart, realizing I’d had a crush on this woman since I was eight years old, and now I stood in her room talking about passions and why men like some dude name Daryl could never understand her. At least not the way I knew I could.
Her eyes narrowed and her left side of her mouth curled up in the slyest of grins I’d ever seen. She poked a finger in my direction. “What’s goin’ through your head over there, Lucas Murray?”
She studied me for a second, drank some more Bud Heavy, and then asked me again. “You heard me. What’s going on in that head of yours? If I didn’t know any better – ”
I knew where she was headed, too. She wasn’t stupid and I was a clumsy kid. My flirting was amateurish. I figured if I played dumb she’d let me off the hook gracefully this time; a mulligan to protect my adolescent pride. There was a tension in the air that I just needed to go away. “If you didn’t know any better what?”
He grinned from ear to ear. Nodding towards the door she simply replied, “We should get back out there.”
I tried to suppress my audible sigh of relief while doubting I was doing a good job of it. I cleared my throat, attempting to sound at least an octave tougher than I knew I was. “Yeah, yeah, let’s get back out there.” I thought I heard her muffle a laugh, but I ignored it.
As I passed by her in the tiny hallway, I felt the delicate fingers of her hand gentle brush my, then, firmly clasping around my palm she pulled me close and gave me a soft kiss on my oily and nervous cheek. It all felt like one large jolt of electricity across my body.
“That was for being a sweetie, and listening to me vent,” she whispered before passing me by and disappearing back outside into the golden summer sun. The minuscule act of affection was enough to help make my Fourth of July one of the brightest I’d remember for years to come.
I made it back to the fire right as Mrs. Wrenwood strolled in with Gabe. He was still making jet sounds playing with his toy. Shelia was back causally sitting in the lawn chair again. Mrs. Wrenwood waved to us, placed a bag she was carrying on the kitchen table, and then came and opened the sliding door. She let us know that Joe sent over some apple pie for dessert, and that she’d have some chicken for me to throw on the grill in a moment. Then sound of the screen door swinging wide open startled us. In the doorway, Timmy stood tall, silhouetted with the sunlight at his back. The shaggy curls of his black hair bounced as much as they shimmered. He gripped the KC Masterpiece in his hand and enough fireworks under his arm to start a war with a tiny country.
“Firecrackers!” Gabe screamed, diving onto Timmy’s leg. Timmy handed him the box and ordered him to go play on the couch.
Timmy nodded to me and came over to the sliding door just as Shelia reached into the nearby cooler retrieving another beer for herself and a Pepsi she handed to me, but nothing for Timmy.
“Since when do you get him drinks?”
I did my best not to look Timmy in the face.
Shelia replied, “He’s a guest. I get guests drinks.”
“Oh my God, since when?” he yelled in his country twang.
“You two knock it off!” Mrs. Wrenwood shouted. “Not gonna say the date again. Tim, take this chicken and get it on the grill. Lucas got the fire burning hot.” Mrs. Wrenwood sat the bowl next to the apple pie and headed past Timmy and back down the hallway.
As Timmy stepped into the small kitchen area and grabbed the bowl of raw chicken, Shelia smirked at me. I cracked open the Pepsi and drank nearly the entire can in one gulp. The rest of summer would be long, I thought.
Once he returned to the porch Timmy pushed past us, bumping into Shelia purposefully. She punched him hard in the arm in return.
“Luke, if you don’t mind would you grab me a soda and put the channel on TBS? I think another game is gonna be on,” he requested.
“I’ll grab you a soda,” Shelia sighed entering the house. “And he prefers to be called Lucas.”
Timmy’s bodied went rigid. “He what?” he shouted, staring in her direction over his shoulder.
Shelia stopped and faced him. “He prefers Lucas now…” her tone was softer now.
Timmy just shook his head. “Fine, whatever. Just somebody get me a drink, please.”
Shelia smirked and again walked over to the fridge. Mrs. Wrenwood’s choice of music – Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” came belting out of the hallway to compound my confusion.
I’ve had nothing but bad luck
Since the day I saw the cat at my door
So I came into you sweet lady
Answering your mystical call
Crystal ball on the table
Showing the future, the past
Same cat with them evil eyes
And I knew it was a spell she cast…
No one’s ever really free from it all, I thought. Not me. Not Timmy. Not Sheila. Nobody.