I began to question the justice of God the day Robert Toomey brought a ball of clay to seventh grade study hall and sat kneading it with his fingers, making something.
“What’s that?” I said.
“It’s a pussy, you little toad,” he said. He was sixteen years old and mean. This was his third try at the seventh grade.
The thing Robert Toomey made was anatomically correct, but, of course, I didn’t know that yet.
Robert Toomey’s hair hung unwashed down to his shoulders and two of his teeth were missing. I, on the other hand, took a bath every day, was a nice kid, had all my teeth, and breezed through school with little more effort than Robert Toomey himself put into it. But soon none of that would matter anymore…
“Have you—?” I said.
“More times than you got fingers and toes,” he said, and his cruel lips parted to show the holes in his mouth. A lump rose in my throat at this injustice and the benevolent providence of God began to fade.
Robert Toomey gave me the thing he made, or rather cast it aside and I took it. I kept it hidden in our basement until it was brittle and broke into pieces when I dropped it on the floor one day, holding it in my hand again, examining it from every angle.
Robert Toomey finished the seventh grade on that third try but never got past the eighth. He spent most of that year smoking cigarettes behind the school gym, smoke drifting with lazy contentment from behind the building. And one day he came from the gym, his pack of Luckies tucked under the shoulder of his tee-shirt, Marlon Brando style, and said,
He flipped a cigarette butt in a beautiful arch toward the school flagpole.
I wasn’t a nice kid anymore, I was a clueless virgin turd and it was no longer possible to believe without question that God counted all the hairs on my well-shampooed head. I was no longer a God-favored-middle-class-Alabama-white-kid; I was a gutless turd who wouldn’t dare smoke a cigarette behind the school gym.
It turned my world inside out. I quit watching Lawrence Welk with my parents because I couldn’t cope with the idea that Janet Lennon actually had one of those things Robert Toomey made with his clay. Ditto for Annette Funicello. I woke up one morning from a dream where Davy Crockett looked more like Robert Toomey than Fess Parker. It was a desperate situation.
My grandmother came to visit.
“What’s wrong with that boy, Louise?” she said to my mother. “He just mopes around the house and he isn’t eating either,” she said.
I was in acute crisis. And there was nowhere to turn. Except…
I stole a pack of Winstons from my father. That took real courage. I was sure he counted the packs on the closet shelf in my parent’s bedroom. Going into my parent’s bedroom and into that closet was enough by itself to dangerously raise my heart rate.
I smoked in the basement and it made me sick, of course, but it was a start. I practiced rolling up the pack of Winstons in my t-shirt sleeve. I smoked another one. Sick again. They were all acquired skills. Then, I went back to Janet Lennon and Annette Funicello. I had to make myself deal with it.
I spent a month in this intense preparation; smoking cigarettes in the basement and imagining Janet and Annette naked, I even did that in church. It took time, but it was working. I could handle it. And Robert Toomey would be there when my training was complete; I knew where to find him.
At least I thought I did. But it was summer when I finished my training and Robert Toomey wouldn’t be smoking behind the school gym. I would have to go to Muleshoe to find him.
When we had to go through Muleshoe—and we always went through Muleshoe—we rolled up the car windows and locked the doors. My father said it smelled like Korea during the war. It took another week, smoking my father’s Winstons in the basement to work up enough nerve (he didn’t, it turned out, keep count). When I rode my bicycle, four miles across town, the sight of Muleshoe was like the first time Peter Cushing saw Dracula’s castle looming through the fog. My mother would have died on the spot.
Muleshoe was a foreign country; it didn’t look the same, it didn’t sound the same, and it didn’t smell the same—and maybe it did smell like Korea during the war. It was where the poor people lived, the real poor people. They had privies in their backyards, some leaning over like neglected tombstones in a graveyard.
The place was so poor the whites lived with the blacks. But at least, my father said, the white trash had enough pride to have their own church—they went to a Holy Roller cinder block church on one side of Muleshoe and the blacks went to an identical cinder block church on the other side. You could drive your car into the middle of Muleshoe on Sunday morning, roll down your window, and hear the singing, shouting, and clapping coming from both sides.
Muleshoe had other consolations too. It had a whorehouse, everybody knew it was a whorehouse; no attempt was made to disguise it. As I said, my mother would have died on the spot.
I rolled up on my bicycle at an Esso station. Junk cars all around the station (one on cinder blocks probably left over from building the churches). Used car tires propped against the walls and crates everywhere, one with an old black man sitting on it.
I did my best to keep my voice from quivering; this was not Leave it to Beaver country.
“Hi,” I said, and took a deep swallow. “You know Robert Toomey?” I said.
The sound of my voice was strange to me.
“Who you, boy?” he said.
I swallowed again.
“I’m looking for Robert Toomey,” I said, my hands clammy on the handlebars.
“That so?” the old man said.
“Yes sir,” I said.
Now the old man looked at me like I had green skin and horns, I doubt he ever heard a white person call him sir in his life.
“I suppose you’ll find him over to his place,” he said.
Robert Toomey’s place was not a place at all. It wasn’t a house. It was across the street from the church the white people went to. It was a beat-up old Airstream, one of those round silver ones, and it looked like it had been hauled from hell-to-Texas a hundred times. Every one of the tires was flat and it looked like a buffet line for rust. I knew it was supposed to be a house because there was a mailbox in front of it. There was dead space all around the trailer. Nothing breathed and nothing moved. There weren’t even any birds. There wasn’t a car or pickup in the yard. I sat on my bicycle across the street in front of the church. I thought I would wait until something moved, something came alive; maybe until Robert Toomey came out of the trailer or back from somewhere.
I waited for a long time, until I had to pee. Now what? I had about decided to go back to the Esso station when the door of the trailer opened, just enough to throw out a cat. The cat flew out of the trailer, screeching and clawing, followed by obscenities in a young feminine voice. Some of the words I hadn’t even heard before.
The cat came halfway across the street, stopped in the middle, looked at me, screeched again and went the other way. Not a good sign.
I waited some more, but I really did have to pee. Now, I wasn’t sure I could make it to the Esso. Necessity drove me across the street and to the front door of the trailer. I gave it some timid I-hope-they’re-not-home knocks. I looked up and down the street for Robert Toomey, at least I knew him; instead of facing the cat tosser behind the door. There was a window by the door but a black shade covered it, a dark eye against the silver of the rest of the trailer.
The door opened again, but whoever was on the other side of the crack didn’t say anything. The only thing I knew for sure was behind that door was the smell. It was the smell of medicine, the unwashed, and something else I couldn’t name. It wasn’t Korea.
“What do you want?” a female voice said.
The smell kept me from answering right away; I didn’t want to draw in the air that I needed to speak.
“What do you want?” the voice said again, insisting.
All I saw was a shadow-blur of movement in the crack of the door, and all I could get out was,
The crack started to close.
The door closed.
It was time to leave, and I would have left, too, but I saw Robert Toomey coming down the street. I watched him like a mouse staring at a snake he knows is going to eat him. When he got close enough to recognize me, he stopped.
“Well, if I ain’t damned,” he said. “You lost, boy?”
At least he didn’t call me turd again.
There he was, nothing changed since he quit the eighth grade three months before. A cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and jerking up and down when he talked, the pack of Luckies bulging under this tee shirt sleeve, and sucking at the cigarette through the gap of one of his missing teeth. Nothing changed.
“Come on,” he said, and I followed him into the Airstream.
It was dark and the smell again, only stronger, inside the trailer. The cat-tosser, she, was sitting on the end of one of two cots side-by-side in the back end of the Airstream.
Robert Toomey introduced us,
“This is Woody,” he said. “His real name is Woodrow, but everybody calls him Woody, Woody Grant.”
No, you call me turd, I thought. He actually knew my name.
“Hi,” I said, timid and whispering.
The thing, she, said nothing. If it/she was capable of speech, beyond cussing cats, it/she didn’t show it. She sat on the end of her cot without moving.
Robert Toomey held out his pack of Luckies. I took one. He passed me a match, but I made sure I didn’t look at her when I lit it; the cigarette covered the stink a little.
“This is Melody,” Robert Toomey said. “She’s my sister,” he said.
I looked at her and wanted to run out of the Airstream.
“She’s sick,” he said.
Black curtains covered all the windows in the trailer, but there was a small lamp shinning, and I could see her well enough.
I stepped away.
The only normal thing about her face was the eyes. They were big, they shined like liquid black, and they stared at me. The glow of the one small lamp haloed the black of her eyes. She still didn’t say anything or acknowledge me except by her stare.
I knew she was pleading, the eyes were pleading. I knew she was pleading for one gesture, one word, one expression on my face that would let her know for the one moment of that gesture, word, or expression that she was human. I couldn’t give it. I took another half step back.
“She’s sick,” Robert Toomey said again.
Her face was encrusted with brown and red bumps. They were on her lips, too, misshaping them and fattening them like slugs. But they weren’t just bumps; you knew that if you broke one open it would spill white and yellow pus down her face. The rest of her skin, you could even see it in the lamplight, was like the skin of a snake.
“What’s she got?” I said, timid and whispering again.
“I can’t say it,” Robert Toomey said. “But she can’t go outside, ever,” he said. “We just call it sunshine sickness, that’s what it is. It starts with an X. It’s like cancer. She’s going to die.” This wasn’t cruel, it was just the truth, and when Robert Toomey said it, she smiled a little.
There was nobody living in the trailer but the two of them, brother and sister; and the cat too, I guess. I could tell that when I looked around. The two cots side-by-side, and no other beds, almost no other furniture at all; no table for eating, a little electric thing for cooking.
“Ain’t got any,” Robert Toomey said. “Pop run off to the oilfields in Oklahoma and mama’s dead,” he said.
I don’t know why nobody ever took her away or put Robert Toomey in some juvenile place either. I guess things like that could happen in Muleshoe.
We stood in the silence of the trailer; she sat on the end of the cot. I forgot why I came looking for Robert Toomey.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom”—I did remember that.
The tiny bathroom in the trailer didn’t work, but they had a privy in the back lot. When I came back in, Robert Toomey was changing his clothes. His sister – Melody – was standing next to him, handing him a shirt stiff and ironed. He put it on.
“Got to look spiffy for work,” he said, “even if it is a whorehouse.”
Robert Toomey worked at the whorehouse in Muleshoe every day except Sunday. He was the bouncer, he kept out the riffraff (most of which came, he said, from the other part of town—my part of town—they didn’t know how to behave in a whorehouse.)
“You come with me,” he said.
I felt a blue electric chill go through my whole body. It was going to happen—the hope and yearnings of all those daydreams and cigarettes in the basement. My escape from turddom.
“Sure,” I said. I tried to be confident and manly but it came out in a quiver.
“Won’t be anybody there yet, really. Too early. But a couple of the girls will show you around,” Robert Toomey smiled, gaps in his teeth.
It was a little while before we went to the whorehouse, long enough for Robert Toomey to give me some instructions on how to behave.
“We’ll walk, like I always do,” he said. “I can’t have no kid come up on a bicycle.”
“Sure,” I said. Another quiver.
“And don’t stare,” he said. “Try to act like you’ve seen a naked woman before. Have you seen a naked woman before?”
“Well shit. Act like you have.”
Oh God! I thought.
Then Robert Toomey cooked a beef patty on the little electric burner for his sister and got her a Coke from a beat-up refrigerator.
“Maybe be home a little early tonight,” he told her. He was going to send me back before dark to get my bicycle and head for home. Melody looked at me and smiled a little, again.
We walked to the whorehouse.
“Like I said, won’t be but a couple of girls there this early,” he said. “But they’ll think you’re cute. You could have yourself a real good time if you half act like you got some sense,” he said.
It all ran through my mind; the clay thing Robert Toomey made, Janet and Annette, stealing cigarettes and smoking in the basement—all passing before my eyes. All that training was about to pay off. But, there was something else too that passed before my eyes and ran through my mind, at the same time.
Robert Toomey was still talking, telling me about how he took care of Melody in the daytime and worked at the whorehouse at night,
“It’s easier now,” he said, “that I don’t try to go to school anymore.”
He saw that I was watching something in my head.
“Hey!” he said.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Sure, I did.”
“Ok, one last thing. Listen to this; if I tell you to head out the back door and hightail for home, you do it. The Muleshoe cops, all three of them, come around once in a while for their cut, if you know what I mean,” he said.
“Oh, sure,” I said, not sure at all. Then I said, “When’s your sister going to…?”
“Probably not for a while. At least that’s what some doctor said, but that was a long time ago. It’s like a cancer, so it’s coming.”
“Why doesn’t she go to a hospital?”
“Lots of reason; doesn’t want to, no money, wouldn’t do any good, nobody gives a shit. That’s not all the reasons but it’ll do.”
“Don’t you have any other family?”
“Nope, just me.”
“You going to stay with her?”
I forgot again why I came looking for Robert Toomey.
We were in the parking lot of the whorehouse. It was an old motel, rooms by the hour. We walked toward the office.
I stopped and Robert Toomey stopped too.
“No,” I said.
Robert Toomey flicked a cigarette into the parking lot, aiming at nothing.
“I’ll stay with Melody for a while,” I said. “If it’s ok with you.”
Robert Toomey looked at me. He wasn’t surprised at all. He took his pack of Luckies out of his freshly ironed shirt pocket.
“Take this,” he said. “Tell her I’ll be back early,” he said.
She wouldn’t talk to me much, at first. Maybe it was because it was only the two of us and she didn’t have Robert Toomey there with her. She sat on the end of her cot, like before.
“You can turn off the lamp, if you want to,” she said.
“No, it’s all right,” I said.
“I stay by myself a lot,” she said. “Bobby has to work.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to imagine calling Robert Toomey, Bobby.
We were silent for a while. But there was nothing wrong about that; it was okay. We would talk again when we needed to.
I looked at her now. Not like I had to, or was afraid to. Maybe you could, after a while, look at her without noticing.
“Woody,” she said. “I like that name. It’s nice,” she was looking at me too, now, without lowering her eyes.
“It’s kind of a kid’s name,” I said.
“What’s wrong with that?” she said. “What’s wrong with being a kid?”
Yeah, what was wrong with that? There were worse things.
“Nothing,” I said.
She said she was tired, she got tired easily, she said, and so she lay down on the cot and I helped her with the blanket.
“How long you and Robert…Bobby…been living by yourselves?” I asked her.
Since she was eleven, she said. I didn’t ask her how long that was, she seemed so tired, but she was at least fourteen, I thought. She fell asleep. I turned off the lamp. There was no need for it. We both waited for something in the semi-dark. She slept and I smoked a cigarette every once in a while. I stayed with her as long as I could, before I had to get back home.
When I went to high school, I got an old ’49 Ford and could go see her more and stay later. Most of the time she slept, she slept more and more, and I smoked and maybe read some of my schoolbooks.
She didn’t die until after I graduated from high school and went to college. I got a letter from Robert Toomey that said Melody was dead and he was in the Army in Kansas. The Army gave him some false teeth, he took a course to finish as much school as he could, and they were teaching him to be a supply sergeant. He was going to stay in it. I don’t know where they sent him after that.
They buried Melody behind the cinder block church; the Airstream, empty and with the black curtains in the windows, still sits across the street and seems to be sinking slowly into the ground.
Once, some time back, I was flicking through the channels and I saw a rerun of Lawrence Welk. I watched for a while, until the Lennon Sisters came on, then I turned it off. I couldn’t deal with it.