Fiction by Michael Wayne Hampton
You are five years old when you go to the elementary school at the end of the holler where the creek widens out. It’s 1982. Elementary school runs from kindergarten to eighth grade. Middle schools don’t exist as far as you know.
After you practice your cursive letters and write out your numbers, the teachers line your class up for lunch. Everyone ahead of you is a giant in your eyes. This school sits on the side of a hill a mile from your house. You live in eastern Kentucky. Your world exists on the sides of hills.
When you ride the bus the boys older than you and twice your size gang together in the back. Some of them carve AC/DC into their arms with pocketknives while others smoke cigarettes they barely bother to sneak. Every older boy has a knife. Every older boy smokes. The girls stay close to the front and yell over each other while the bus heaves from side to side as it humps over the bows and dips in road. Once you’ve settled in, if the sun is nice you plod your way home alone. You keep close to the ditch in case you need to dodge a car. On these days no teachers bother to stop you. They’re sure you know the way.
The grown-ups talk about the Russians a lot. They tell you that in Russia the government picks your job for you. They tell you their people don’t have food enough to keep from starving. Your family grows more than it can eat on the flatland not given to pasture. Your dad works a government job for the highway department. He’s never had to go down in a coal mines thanks to the government. You watch First Blood half a dozen times when you’re six. You rented it with money your dad gave you to stay out of trouble. Later he buys you a survival knife at the flea market. It has a compass on one end, fishing line and hooks inside the handle, and barbs on the back of its blade just like Rambo’s. You stuff it into your belt and wait for Russians.
You grow taller, get your picture taken, and move up one grade at a time. By third grade you’re big enough to catch the notice of a sixth grade heathen named Corky. That year he beats you up every time he catches you alone. Your Principal is a drunk who sleeps on a couch in the front of the office, but you don’t know what a drunk is since your family are strict Southern Baptists. One day that Principal gets tired of watching you wrestle under Corky, so he pulls the two of you out of class to fight the hatefulness out for good. You don’t want to fight, but it’s settled. You lose. You’ll keep losing for the better.
Every teacher has a wooden paddle to teach the lessons that words can’t. Once, in fourth grade, you’re jerked out of your seat for being loud and dumb by Holiness teacher who wears the same three dresses every week. She orders you to wait in the hall, then calls your bus driver away from his teaching since he can hit harder than she can with her arthritis. He’s got holes drilled in his paddle, and he swings it wide from his hip like he’s pitching a fastball. You bite back a cry after every Thwack! and do your best to keep count. You sit back at your desk on your scalded hind-end, but your jaw stays mortared shut. You’ve been raised on whippings, on switches, on belts. At nine you’ve been educated on hurting, and understand that it fades faster than shame.
The water from your well turns your white shirts and drawers the color of rust. In the winter your small raw hands stack ricks of split wood to keep the Buck Stove burning. When summer comes you wedge a box fan into your window. You race everywhere barefoot. You get stung by yellow jackets, by packsaddles, by electric fences. Each is a lesson on the pain of living. One day your dad brings home a set of concrete weights along with a barbell and bench held together with duct tape. He sets them up under the shed where the lawn mower and tiller wait for purpose. He sweating from his labor, but swears you’re going to get strong.
And you do. You grow up swinging from grapevines, tearing through briar patches, and sliding down shale banks until your hide turns tough as work boots. You’re big enough to help your papaw chop tobacco, check his fox traps, and shovel coal into his basement where the cast iron furnace stains everything the color of motor oil. While you work he teaches you not to hurt black snakes since they kill copperheads, shows you how to walk on just the sides of your feet so that you can stalk as quiet as an Indian through the woods. He warns you that if you ever get shot by an arrow you have to snap it off at the shaft, never yank it out if you want to live. He takes his pocketknife and shows you how to put an edge on it a man can shave by using the underside of a coffee mug.
By sixth grade you can swing higher than any other kid in your class. After you eat your popsicles at recess you show your hoodlum friends how to scratch those slimy sticks against the brick wall until they’re sharp enough to stab clean through a pair of blue jeans. One day a real Army helicopter flies low and slow over the playground before it lifts up and yawns back over the treeline. You ask your bus driver if those soldiers are looking for Russians, and he spits a stream of Red Man juice onto the ball court. “National Guard,” he says with his eyes tracking where the chopper trailed off. “Probably out looking for a pot patch.”
You hear rap music for the first time when you graduate to one of the back rows of the bus. The boys a grade above you huddle around a boombox and debate on whether they should be Bloods or Crips. It’s aggravating, the way you always feel behind no matter how much you learn. You’re sure the only places that count are out past all those limestone cliffs and silt ponds, deadlifts and hills swallowed by pine trees and hickories. You judge superior any place where the kudzu doesn’t creep and where ridgelines don’t wall up the real world. At home you prop up pop cans, then blast them to pieces with your .410. In your head you’re a real gangster right out of The Godfather. There are only four or five black families in the county. They all live on the same hill, and go to a school in town. You’ve never seen nor heard of a black gangster.
You’re as reckless as your cousin. When school is out for Christmas the two of you stand in the snow and pinch cigars between your teeth to light the bottle rockets you launch at each other as sparks scream across the single-digit dark. On summer break the two of you salvage a couple of the bullet-riddled road signs your dad brought home for scrap, hitch them to the front of your bikes with seagrass strings for shields, then pedal as fast as you can to joust the other one flat. Your tobacco stick lance wobbles where its tucked under your arm while your tires sing down the gravel road, but your aim stays fixed dead center of your cousin’s stop sign that gets bigger each second. You head-on each other, hammer to nail, and fly off sideways with the air sucked out of you. When the sense rolls back into your throbbing head you laugh harder than you ever will again in your life.
Monday night is for Bible study. Wednesday night is for choir practice. On Sunday the church bells ring for morning services, and in the evening they call to worship any souls within earshot. In July you go to Vacation Bible School five days straight where you paint wooden versions of Noah’s arc and glue cotton balls to cardboard sheep. In October you go to church every night of Revival Week where prayers are lifted and hymns sung for backsliders, and the lost. You’ll spend more hours in church than in elementary school. A lot of the stories in church make no sense – a talking donkey, a woman turned to salt – but you get each one down. You come to see the Bible like math; you have to learn it whether you ever use it or not.
Every kid has a paper bag with their name on it taped to the classroom wall to collect Valentines. Your mom bought a card for each kid in your class: Barbie or Rainbow Brite for the girls, and Michael Jordan or The Ultimate Warrior for the boys. She made you sign each one the night before. At the end of the day you take down your bag, counting your haul. When the buses start up you try to kiss Tabitha Hacker. She stabs you with her pencil. Now you’ll go to your grave with a lump graphite in your back to remind you to be a gentleman.
A girl in your class smells bad, but no one tells her out of charity or pity. Her clothes are dirty, and her hair reminds you of Linoleum. Your mamaw says that girl’s daddy makes a living turning out babies for the checks. She says it don’t cost a thing to wash a child or their clothes. She says it’s a sin how her mommy and daddy keep her and her sisters. The girl who smells bad sits in the desk right in front of you. She doesn’t speak a word the entire year, just sits politely and draws horses. One horse after another covers every page in her notebook, front to back. They’re the most perfect creatures you will ever lay eyes on.
Your mom rushes for you by the front office, blushed red and blubbering. Before she can choke out, “He gone,” your little body is smothered in her arms. Everyone in your family is gathered head-bowed and somber in your mamaw’s living room with the exception of your aunts who sit witness with her in the back bedroom. Two days later you watch your dad carry your papaw’s casket out of the funeral home with the help of five other men who aren’t kin. They march in step-time like soldiers. You wipe your cheek and picture the day you’ll heft your dad onto your shoulders and march him off toward that distant shore.
The last day of eighth grade every kid on the bus sprays shaving cream and Silly String in a frenzy onto each other while the bus driver yelps “Stop you idgets!” But he takes the wheel once he sees there’s no reasoning with a mob high on hormones. Soon you’re covered in Barbasol and jets of pink Silly String. You swipe a glob of it off your face and stuff it up the front of Kathy Davidson’s shirt. It will be years before you realize this is the first time you went up a girl’s shirt. It will be years before you realize your bus driver made up “idgets” by crashing the words “idiots” and “midgets” together. But for now you’re wild, gasping for air, and smacking foam by the fistful onto the kids you learned your first letters with. It won’t take long before some of those same kids are carried away from car wrecks or overdoses. It won’t take long until you can’t put their name to their faces if you pass at the grocery. But it will be years before you appreciate the grace that comes from gritting through that pain of living, before you can mourn the loss of salvation bound inside children too young to be anything but free.
Michael Wayne Hampton is the author of three books. His criticism, essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in The Southeast Review, McSweeney’s, and Rust+Moth among many others. In 2013, he won The Deerbird Prize and in 2012 his work was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. Hampton has been a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, and a two-time finalist for the World’s Best Short Story Contest. In 2014, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. He can be reached via his website michaelwaynehampton.com or on Twitter @motelheartache.