Charles started school with us after his mother
and daddy left him over in Harlton. He walked home one day and the place was
cleaned out except for a stack of phone books. He sat there on those books
while it got dark. The landlady came by and told him his folks were gone. She’s
gotta rent the place. He can’t stay. Find some kin, she says. Go live with
them. Thing is, he’s got no other kin, or he doesn’t want to give up where they
live. So the landlady called the law and they came for him.
If Charles knew the reason his folks ran off
without him, he didn’t dwell on it. Even poor people like us can afford
reasons. When you see poor people walking around with something, it’s a safe
bet you don’t want it. Many times we don’t want it either.
Sheriff Clark says, ‘Now Charles, one of them
phone books was from Dallas. Did your folks go to Dallas?’
Charles didn’t talk much to anybody, but he
wouldn’t say boo to Thurmond Clark. Even at nine he knew better. So Thurmond
said fine, keep your mute ass in the orphans’ home. There was only one orphans’
home and it was here in Tatum.
Things were different in the forties. A kid shows
up with dirt all over his face and don’t wanna tell you where his folks might
be, you stick him in the Tatum Home and move on. The end. Right off, Charles
seemed okay with it. Would it have made a fancy damn if he wasn’t? At least he
had his own bed now. He had a big white bathtub too. I used a number 3 washtub
out back of our house.
People saw Charles as tough. Had he come from over
at Shady Acres, they would have said stuck up. But since the bus picked him up
at the home, his quiet streak meant he was tough. It took me a year to get over
the feeling that Charles suffered the rest of us. I wouldn’t have said that
back then. I would’ve said it didn’t seem to trouble him that he had no friends
but me. We got along. In junior high, Charles grew like a Beefmaster. He was
over six foot tall, two hundred pounds, and his nature didn’t leave anything
for the bullies to poke fun at. I was a small kid and they gave me hell, so I
stuck close to Charles.
It wasn’t until the tenth grade, when some of the
boys started catching up with his size, that Jeff Garvey decided to try
Charles. Jeff didn’t touch him, but he jibed him, made fun of the way he
looked, worked up to calling his mother names. Charles didn’t pay any
attention. They couldn’t get a rise out of him, and that was the end of him
being tough. From then on, they rode Charles hard at school. He said it wasn’t
nothing like the way they did him at the home. Somebody shit in his footlocker.
Somebody peed on his straw hat. You don’t get new clothes at the home until you
split the seams of the ones you’ve got. My dad had an extra hat and he gave it
to Charles. It was a wool paperboy hat that made his hair wet with sweat most
of the time, different colours of paint splattered all over it because Dad was
a painter. Charles slept wearing that hat so it wouldn’t get pissed on and
people took to calling him Dutch Boy. You do that to people like Charles. You
call them names like Dutch Boy until one sticks. Dutch Boy stuck.
Dad told him, ‘Nothing says you gotta put up with
nonsense. Hit one of ’em in the nose and they might quit. It’s what I tell
Charles nodded but he didn’t hit anybody. A
flat-faced orphan kid called Yeller snatched Charles’ hat off his head one
evening and Charles choked him until he went limp. Yeller was a wiry little
kid, a wiseass. I don’t know what made him think he could take Charles’ hat. I
guess nobody had tried thieving from Charles before and Yeller figured somebody
needed to. That was the end of the home for Charles. They couldn’t have him
strangling people, and he was too young for jail, so they turned him out on the
street. It was 1953. Charles was sixteen and looked twenty.
We took him in. He quit school that year and Dad
put him to work painting. That lasted two months until Dad saw business was too
slow to afford it. He already had Arty Monkhouse working full time with him and
there wasn’t enough pay to go around. Afterwards, Charles helped around the
house. He started by painting it. He fixed the chicken pen and split a bunch of
wood, then he hung us a new front door. We ran out of money for materials and
he had nothing left to do. That’s when he slept with Mom.
Dad knew Mom had slept with the son of a bitch who
came by every month selling Cloverine Salve and something that looked like
Twenty Mule Team Borax but didn’t work as good. He said he knew because she
smelled like Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic on those days. Dad found the guy and
clipped him a good one with the truck. From then on, Mom and everybody else
living on Farm to Market Road 1863 had to wait for Sundays to ride into town
and buy their salve and borax.
Dad told me, ‘Grace has always had a touch of the
whore in her, but she’s otherwise a very good wife and a fine mother. I don’t
know why your friend did us like this.’
He wouldn’t have known about Mom and Charles at
all if she hadn’t confessed it. Beats me why she did. Dad tried to rough up
Charles but he couldn’t hurt him. That was the end of Charles living with us. I
held it against Mom, so when Charles left to join the service I asked Dad to
sign the paper so I could go too. I told him I couldn’t hang around until
people figured out Mom was a whore, and he understood me.
People didn’t know much about the Air Force in
1954, but flying planes seemed like probably the thing to do. The Army and the
Marine Corps looked like a bunch of marching around in heavy shoes. Dad was in
the Navy in the second war and he said they did have planes but you definitely
didn’t want to be no squid. A squid is what they call you when you’re in the
Navy. Squid life was hell on the water, he said.
We found out right away that I was too stupid and
Charles was too big to fly aeroplanes. The Air Force gives you a test to see
what jobs you qualify for. Sergeant Stacey said Charles scored so high on the
test that they were rewriting it. You weren’t supposed to be able to score that
high. It’s a shame his shoulders were wide as a barn door, because they needed
pilots. I asked how I did and Sergeant Stacey said I passed for ground vehicle
maintenance and the band. They want you to already know how to play something
before letting you in the band, so they trained me to work on cars and trucks.
It wasn’t all that tough. They sent Charles to radar school.
Dad mailed me a letter while I was in mechanic
school. He wondered how things were going, how was I liking it. He wrote that
business was still slow, but he was making it. He ended by telling me he sent
Mom back to her folks in Duncanville when she turned up pregnant. That torpedo
hit on his battleship in the Pacific had trapped him against a bulkhead and
mashed his balls. He couldn’t have any more kids after me, so he knew the baby
was Charles’ or somebody else’s. I decided I’d never tell Charles. It was too
I didn’t see my friend or hear from him for all
the next year. They stationed me at McChord AFB way up in Washington State. I
thought that was the end for me and Charles. I couldn’t imagine where he might
go when he got out, or how long he would stay in, and I hoped the Air Force
with their test had put him somewhere he felt like he belonged. I fell in with
the rest of the dummies in the motor pool and listened to their stories of the
fighting in Korea.
Then Charles showed up at McChord, out of the
blue. It’s a small Air Force. He was working on the new Lashup radar sites
around the northwest, top secret shit to spot the Russian bombers coming in
across the ocean. The Air Force gave him a grey Studebaker Wagon and let him
wear civilian clothes and live in motels most of the time. He liked his job,
what he told me about it. I liked his job too. I hated mine. Most of the time I
wanted to hit somebody with a cheater pipe.
I saw him about twice a month when he came by the
base to sign in. He would bring me that Studebaker to fix when he broke it,
which was fairly regular. Seemed like he generally slowed down by running over
something heavy. Anyway, I didn’t make any reports. Plenty of Studebakers and
Studebaker parts around. There were always spare bunks in the barracks and sometimes
Charles stayed the night. He’d tell stories of how the radars picked up UFOs
all the time and the scope dopes would radio in to scramble fighters. The
pilots wouldn’t see anything but a few Russians flying around over Alaska. They
were always there, he said.
Then, one Friday while I’m under his car, Charles
sticks his head in the garage to tell me he can’t stay the night this time
because they’ve assigned another airman to ride with him named Luthie. They
didn’t get along and Charles thought he’d better go by the book for a while.
That was near the end of the Air Force for Charles. He was discharged a month
or so later, a few weeks before me. It was all over with and I heard about it
second hand, what there was to hear. I had to wonder what this guy Luthie did
Before all that, word around base had it that
Charles was on his way to making Technical Sergeant in record time. He knew
things about their radar equipment they wouldn’t figure out for a while yet,
and he caused zero trouble. Then, poof!, he’s gone. He would’ve given the Air
Force twenty years if they had let him. He had already reenlisted for another
six, the long hitch, when they discharged him. Not me. I was counting days.
When I got out and headed back home, one of the
first people I saw was Charles, at the diner across from the bus station. He
was in painter’s coveralls. Dad’s man Arty had come down with some lung disease
and couldn’t cut it on the job any more. There was no problem between Charles
and Dad, what with Mom gone. Dad put all that in a letter that I guess the Air
Force just threw away after I left.
I bought some clothes and got a room at Della
Thomas’ boarding house down the road a ways from the Texan Motor Court where
Charles stayed. From the start, it was fairly obvious what I would be doing in
Tatum. Smiddy’s garage had gone belly-up last year and that left one mechanic
in town, Elgin Gardner. Elgin’s Garage was mainly a wrecker service. He knew
his business in tyres and batteries. He’d changed a lot of oil and could swap
out a starter pretty slick, but he was slow as Christmas on everything else. An
old man too. His lot was packed with broke-down cars owned by people who only
had the one car.
I rented Smiddy’s two-bay space downtown and hung
out my shingle. I made a killing on drivetrain work. I don’t mean to say I
cheated people. I charged what you would charge if you were the single person
in three counties who knew how to do a thing. When Elgin took apart an
automatic transmission, he was a day and a half getting it back together. If it
had a hydraulic torque converter, he wouldn’t even try. I knew all about those
things. And don’t forget, Studebaker had one of the first limited-slip
differentials out there. By 1958, everybody thought the limited-slip differential
was the most important part on a car. Come Christmas, I found myself giving
bonuses to two other mechanics who worked for me. I was a businessman.
Me and Charles hung out a lot, like back in
school. Neither of us had any other friends. We would meet over at Dad’s house
every weekend and must’ve burned several tons of meat on the old barbeque
grill. We watched as Dad got older and more annoying and felt ourselves moving
up as the next line of men in town. It felt natural. The thing I was missing was
a woman. I wasn’t very good at that. Dad told me if I’d wash the grease off me
once in a while I might fare better. I don’t know. Grease doesn’t come off so
With Charles helping, Dad’s business did much
better. He got more commercial jobs around the county and pretty soon he made
Charles a partner and they took on another man. Charles never moved out of the
Texan. In 1960, when I could afford a down payment on a house, I told him he
ought to move in with me. He could cover half the bills and have half the
house, a big three-bedroom ‘arts and crafts bungalow’ they called it. His half
would be less than what they charged at the Motor Court. I hadn’t been over
there to see his room, wasn’t invited to. I hated thinking of him living there.
But he said no, he liked where he was. He had all his stuff where he could see
it and that made him happy.
We moved the weekend get-togethers to my house in
town that summer. Sometimes I would have a lady over, but mostly it was us
guys. Then Dad’s health went downhill, arthritis set in, and he stopped coming
regular. One Saturday, when it was me and Charles, I worked around to asking
him what happened up in Washington. He said they invited him to leave the Air
Force for anti-Semitism.
‘Jewish people?’ I asked him.
‘Luthie. He was Jewish.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘You weren’t around him. All he talked about was
the brass not letting him fly because he was Jewish. We were in a motel near
Chehalis this one night when I finally told him they didn’t let me fly either,
and I had no religion at all. He took offence. Said Jewish people were a race
and an ancient tribe, not like some fucking Methodist or something, and they
had been persecuted by my people for centuries. I told him I didn’t know which
people he was talking about, but he’s the first Jew I’d ever met. He got so
worked up that he stormed out of the room. Come six the next morning he was
nowhere to be found, so I left for the gap-filler site without him. When I got
over to McChord the next day, the Air Police nabbed me at the gate. The Colonel
said he hated to lose a good airman, but the Air Force couldn’t afford
something like this. If I took the honourable discharge, he’d put in a word for
me with Bendix. Said to look at it as a pay raise.’
It’s the most I’d heard Charles say at one time.
It blew me away.
‘Shit. Who’s Bendix?’
‘They made the radars on the Distant Early Warning
Line, watching the polar cap and the Bering Straits. Hired a lot of ex-Air
‘They call you?’
‘Yeah. But I wanted to work on that new
phased-array thing they had going. I had some ideas. Not anywhere near Cape
Newingham, Alaska, that’s for sure. Washington was too cold for me. They said
Alaska or nothing, so I came home.’
‘Whatever in hell a phased-array is.’
‘It doesn’t matter now. Lockheed is putting their
MIDAS birds in space and they’ll make the DEW Line look ignorant.’
‘Man, what all did they teach you?’
He shrugged. I didn’t bring it up again.
Charles and Dad were painting the new Brookshire
Brothers grocery store when Dad’s heart gave out. It was summer 1962. We buried
him in Memory Park and I half expected Mom to show up. I imagined somebody
seeing the obituary and tracking her down. It would’ve been weird with Charles
there, so I’m glad she didn’t come. I hadn’t spoken to her since it all
happened. Afterwards, at Dad’s house, I asked Charles did Dad say anything
before he gave it up. We couldn’t find a will.
‘Not much,’ Charles said.
‘Well, he’d want you to take the business, so it’s
yours. You can have the house too, if you want it.’
‘I like my room in town. But I’ll take that
painting gear out back if it’s okay with you.’
He got a storage unit where he kept all the
equipment and didn’t change the name of the business. He did hire two more
people, and he bought a van, had Virgil Lott Painting put on the side. I took
Dad’s truck for the parts and sold the five acres. The buyer bulldozed my old
clapboard home right after we closed on the deal. He fenced it in and put
horses out there. The next week, like it was time for several things to end at
once, the Texan Motor Court burned to the ground. I asked Charles if he wanted
to stay with me until he found some place else, but he said he’d get him
another room out on the highway.
‘Did you lose a lot?’
‘Not too much,’ he said. ‘Some clothes. My
‘I didn’t know you kept fish.’
‘I had one.’
He moved into the Globe Motel and he never invited
me over there either. We talked less and less as time went by, saw each other
once in a blue moon. I started seeing a woman on a steady basis. Lucy Bundy. I
met her when she brought her Buick into the shop. That was one reason I saw
less of Charles. The other was that he had so much painting going on that he
was supervising two crews at once now. He left town on occasion too. I noticed
his van gone from the hotel late at night, and he didn’t go out drinking. I
hoped he had a lady friend somewhere.
He came over to the house the day Kennedy was
shot. Luce was there. We sat around my new Zenith and watched the news for
several hours. Dallas is a hundred and forty five miles from Tatum. It was too
close to talk about.
Thanksgiving came and I invited Charles over, but
he said he already had plans. I didn’t press him as to what they were, but I
wondered. Luce and I watched President Johnson on the TV without him. It still
wasn’t real. President Johnson. A guy from our neck of the woods in the White
House. They wouldn’t have elected a guy who sounded like us.
I called Charles on the night of New Year’s Eve.
‘I’ve got some news,’ I told him. ‘Luce and I are
gonna tie the knot.’
‘Congratulations, Jake. Tell her I said so.’
‘I want you to be there. Just a little thing down
at the JP’s office. Will you come?’
‘You know I will if I can. When?’
‘We’re not sure yet. We want to go straight away
on our honeymoon, but Luce is the only manager at M. E. Moses right now and I’m
covered up at the shop. Soon though.’
‘Well, keep me posted.’
It didn’t happen soon. Not in the spring like we’d
hoped. Not in the summer or fall either. Something always came up. Neither of
us were wild about the idea of a winter wedding, so it would probably be next
year. We’d have to set a date and stick to it.
Then I came home from work one afternoon and found
a letter in my mailbox. From Charles. Why in hell would he write me a letter? I
opened it in the car.
This is a rotten thing to do. I’m
sorry. I sold your Dad’s
business. The cheque in here is half of what I got for it. It was a good price.
Don’t be too upset with me.
The Air Force is going to let me fly. Or ride
at least. They’ve got radars on big jets and they need flying techs. I can’t
think of any reason not to go, besides you. I thought I had two more weeks to
find some way to tell you. Now they want me to report at Barksdale tomorrow.
I need a favour. I want my son to
have my stuff at the motel. He and Grace will be down in a couple of days. His
name is Charlie. I gave them your number. Please do this for me, Jake. The rent
is paid until Friday.
I’m sorry I’ll miss the wedding.
I wish you and Luce the best.
Well, there’s the end of that, I thought. I really
can’t imagine why, but I had this concrete vision in my head that we would be
old men on my porch here in Tatum. Luce would bring us coffee and put up with
us joking and carrying on about the past. We hadn’t been known to joke and
carry on before, but I felt it coming. I felt certain Charles would die with
paint in his hair like Dad.
I drove over to the Globe. The manager was
expecting me and let me in. There was a box of books and tablets on the dresser
beside a medium-size aquarium, and that was it. I unplugged the aquarium and
the manager helped me get it in my car. Didn’t look like there was anything
alive in it, but there was a note taped on the tank: ‘Charlie will feed him.
Thanks.’ I figured there was a crab hiding somewhere among the rocks. Then,
when it sloshed going into the back seat, something moved and startled me. It
was a squid, but not any squid like I’d seen pictures of. It was about the size
of a golf ball and had these bright zebra stripes all over. No, it looked more
like a gaudy pinstriped suit. It was beautiful, pumping and floating the way it
Charles was sure a mystery to me. He always had been.
A pet squid.
At home, I plugged the squid back up and waited
for Luce to come by. When she got there, I gave her the letter.
‘Did you know he had a son?’
‘Yes. Sit with me.’
I told her the whole story. It was shorter than I
thought it would be, or maybe she already knew most parts of it, except that
‘My God. So … Charlie is your brother!’
‘Half-brother. I guess. It’s really too strange
for me to talk about, in that way. We need to sort of play that part down as
best we can. It’ll be hard enough to see them as it is.’
‘You haven’t met him?’
‘Luce, I haven’t seen Mom since 1954.’
‘No, I’ll tell you what’s strange,’ she said,
‘your father and Charles, all that time working together. Like friends.’
‘They were friends. I didn’t tell Charles that Mom
was pregnant. I don’t know when Dad told him, but I’m thinking it must have
been shortly before he died. That’s when things started changing with me and
‘What on earth will you say to him?’
‘Yeah. I don’t know. Charles and I got around it
by not talking about it. First, I didn’t tell him what I knew, then he didn’t
tell me what he knew, and it was kind of okay.’
‘And that’s the way you wanna leave it?’
‘I’m not the one that left it. I don’t know yet.’
I busted my knuckles at work the next day and
stopped short of firing my best mechanic for an argument I started. I was
thankful when the phone rang that night, and that surprised me.
‘Mr Lott?’ A kid’s voice.
‘That’s me. Jacob. Just Jake.’
‘I’ve got some things your father left for you,
Charlie. Should I meet you and your mom somewhere?’
‘We’re right around the corner at the Texaco. Mom
says can we come over?’
‘Yeah. I’ll turn on the porch light.’
Five minutes later, there he was, on my porch. Mom
was standing behind him. He has her face. Hell, I do too, so he pretty much has
my face. There was no mistaking where his shoulders came from, though. He was a
huge boy, nearly two of me at that age, the age I first met his father. I
invited them in as Luce was coming from the kitchen with tea for us.
She said, ‘Grace, I’m Lucy. People call me Luce.
Have a glass of tea.’
‘Thank you. This is Charlie.’ It was easier for
her to talk to a stranger. I’m glad Luce was there.
‘Would you like some tea, Charlie?’
‘Call me Luce.’
‘Y’all come on in here and sit down,’ Luce told
‘I appreciate it,’ Mom said, ‘but it’s a long
drive and we need to be going.’
‘You’re not driving back to Duncanville tonight,
are you?’ Luce said, and she jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow.
I spoke up, ‘I’ve got two extra beds here.’
‘Thank you, Jacob. We’re down visiting my father.
Our bus leaves for New York early in the morning.’
‘New York!’ Luce said. ‘Wow.’
‘My sister is there. We live with her now.’
‘Well … The stuff’s in here.’ I pointed the way.
Luce took their glasses. As we walked to the den, I told Charlie, ‘Me and your
Dad go way back. I’d say we’re best friends. I wish I could’ve seen him before
he left. Did he tell you we were in the Air Force together?’
Mom said, ‘He knows who you are, Jacob. I told
I said, ‘Charlie, that thing in the tank there
scared me when I went to pick it up. I didn’t feed it. The note said you would.
Is it a squid?’
‘Yeah. A striped pyjama squid. Granddad got the
first one. It burned up. I went with Dad to get this one in Dallas.’
Behind us, Luce said, ‘It’s gorgeous. Rare
‘They’re from Australia,’ Mom told her. ‘They’re
rare over here because nobody wants one.’
‘He didn’t want no fish or anything in there with
it?’ I picked up the aquarium and looked through the glass.
‘Pyjama squids have to live alone,’ Mom said.
‘Anything you put in the tank with it would die in a day or two and float up to
the top. They don’t know why. Your father heard about them during the war. He
thought it was a good joke, all that money to order one, but Charles latched on
to the thing.’ She stared at me. There was a liver spot on her cheek that
didn’t used to be there.
I followed them to the car and got the tank
situated. Mom carried the box of books.
‘Any idea where Charles will be stationed?’ I
‘He said he would write us both when he knew.’
‘He damn sure better. Charlie, I would like it if
you wrote me too.’
‘I’ve got your address.’
We shook hands. ‘I mean it,’ I told him. ‘I’ve
never had a brother.’
Mom said, ‘You’ve had one for nearly ten years.’
I got two letters from Charles. He said it was
difficult to write. They were moving him around constantly and he was
unbelievably busy. The program they had him working on was called Airborne
Early Warning. Didn’t make nearly as catchy an acronym as Distant Early
Warning, but it was the new thing. In February of 1965, our local man in the
White House sent the big bombers to Vietnam for something he called Rolling
Thunder. Charles’ EC-121 plane went too. I could tell by his handwriting how
excited he was. They would make history in one of those planes over a stretch
of water called the Tonkin Gulf. I saw it on the news.
Charles’ plane went down in an accident some time
in late 1966. I found out in February of ’67 in a letter from Charlie. It was
missing a lot of details and I didn’t know whether that’s because he didn’t
have any help writing it, or because he did. They never found Charles or any of
the crew. They gave them little white crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. I
don’t know why I wasn’t invited to the ceremony. I asked Luce if she reckoned
it hurt less for Charlie because he didn’t really know his dad.
probably hurts less, but not for the reason you think. Does that make you feel
better, comparing your loss to his?’
I guess I thought it might.
handle it better than we do. It doesn’t mean Charlie didn’t have time to love
his dad much. It means he’s a kid and he n eeds to heal.’
wondered if Charlie thought about it like I did. Most times, I thought missing
was not dead, it was just not here. I can handle not here.
forever and a day, but the bookstore in Tyler finally found a book on
underwater reef animals that had a little piece in it about pyjama squids. It
had one picture and two paragraphs. Dad was right. They kill pretty much
everything that can’t get away from them. They don’t bite or sting or anything.
The book said some way or other they make it impossible for anything to live
near them, but nobody at that time had figured out how.
By now I’ll bet
they’ve figured out the reasons for everything I can imagine and then some.
Once in a while I’ll see a television show that answers questions I didn’t know
to ask. I haven’t seen one on the mysteries of pyjama squids, which is fine. I
have enough reasons already. More than I can use.