My father died in April of 1974 when I was eleven years old. He might not have been the best citizen in town, but he had been a good father, and my two older sisters and I had always felt that he loved us. He wasn't any big time crook or anything. He ran an after hours club, made a little book, and had a numbers game. There were some people that didn't care for him very much, but he was committed to his family and friends.
My mother was pretty strong about things when he died, but I suppose she didn't have any choice, suddenly having to fend for herself and three kids alone.
I sure didn't handle it well. After the initial grief passed I got a little crazy. I had a chip on my shoulder and was always getting into fights. I was a pretty tough kid, so I had a bad-boy reputation in no time.
I really only had one person you could call a friend. Richie LaFleur was a nutty French-Canadian. He lived with his mother, stepfather, and sister in half of a two-family house not too far from me. He didn't have a French accent like his parents, but he said a lot of words funny. The word hot became haught, things like that, only he almost made two syllables out of it. He said hill something like hee-you. I think he had a little trouble with 'L''s. He pronounced cold like co-ood. I didn't always understand him, especially when he said something like it's co-ood on the hee-yoo. He didn't get much chance to talk, anyhow. I monopolized the conversation most of the time we spent together, not that anything I had to say was interesting to him. I was venting all the time, whether he was there or not. I was pissed off at the world, and I wanted everyone to know that nothing, absolutely nothing, pleased me, and that nothing was fair. When Richie wasn't around I'd lay into my mother and my sisters.
The day school let out for the summer, I walked home with Richie and waited for him to drop off his stuff and change clothes, then we walked over to my house to do the same. It wasn't far, just across the tracks and about a quarter mile down my street. I was bitching about everything as usual.
"Je-sus! Dave, you're not gonna keep that shit up all summer are ya? You been bitchin' 'bout everythin' since your father died. Ain'tcha ever gonna let it go?"
"Fuck you! If you don't like it just leave."
"Come on, Davy. Let's have some fun. You need to get your mind on good things."
"There ain't no good things."
"Let's go fishin' or somethin', anything," he pleaded.
I was amazed by his sudden stupidity, "Ain't no place for fishin' around here."
"Sure there is - lots of places. Let's go get some bullheads."
I was a little surprised, "Where?"
"Right up the street behind Ken's. There's three ponds right there, an' one of 'em's loaded with bullheads. Ain't no limit, either. It's his private property."
Richie seemed surprised, "You don't know him? He owns all that land across from Jerry's grandfather."
I shrugged, "I hardly know Jerry. I don't know where his grandfather lives."
Richie pointed up the street. "Just after the trestle - go left, then straight. Ken owns the whole left side of the street."
I knew where he meant. I'd wandered up there a few times. I suppose somebody owns all land, but this was the type you never gave any thought to anyone owning. There was a field along the road, then woods going up the hill. I didn't think anybody lived up there.
Richie grinned, "Let's get some poles and go. You gotta meet Ken. He's a lot of fun."
I shrugged, "If you say so. What're we gonna use for bait?"
"We can just dig some worms in his garden."
I was resigned to it, "I guess - okay. At least it's something to do."
"Beats listenin' to you whine all day," Richie smirked.
That shut me up. Was I whining? I thought I was making critical commentary. I guess maybe I was whining, but it seemed important to let everybody know how I felt about everything. Rotten.
I got changed and found a couple of fishing poles.
"We need a pail or something."
"For what?" I asked.
Richie looked at me in exasperation, "For the fish, dumbo. You gotta keep bullheads alive until you cook 'em."
"You eat those things?" I asked, thinking they were junk fish like johnny roach.
"Hell, yeah! The way my Mom makes 'em, they're great. Ken makes 'em on the grill, and his're even better." He pronounced it gree-yoo.
"If you say so."
We walked along, it was about a mile, until we got to this guy's driveway. I'd never gone very far down that road myself, so I didn't know it was there. There were two houses on the right, and Richie pointed out Jerry's grandfather's house, then the street just sort of ended. A dirt track kept going, but there were just fields ahead of us. Ken's driveway was on the left. There was a huge mailbox at the end, and the driveway was gravel. It was overhung with weeping willows. It seemed to just disappear into the distance.
"You wanna meet Ken or just go fishing?" Richie asked.
"I don't care." I didn't.
"Let's see if he's home."
We turned into the driveway and started walking. After a bit, I could see that it didn't keep going as far as it seemed to from the road. Instead, it turned left and went up a hill. On the right side of the hill was a big stone wall with a red house sitting above it. The house looked about four stories high from there, but when we got to the top you could see it wasn't all that big. That one side looked huge because it hung off the hill and the wall seemed to be part of it. There was a big parking area at the top of the driveway, and there were lots of things in it. A couple of cars and a pickup. Three dirt bikes. There was a beautiful metallic blue dune buggy, and I knew then that I'd seen this guy before, because I'd seen the car. Every once in a while you'd see him tearing around in it. You couldn't miss it. He always wore a shit-eatin' grin, and was whooping like crazy. There was another kind of dune buggy - the kind you see in the desert races - with just metal tubing and no body. There was a flagpole on a flat cement area, and a cannon was sitting there. A real cannon! Richie went to the door, but it didn't seem like anybody was there.
"Nobody home. Let's get some worms."
There was a vegetable garden behind the house, and a shovel leaning against a shed. Richie dug for a while and we soon had plenty of worms. We headed uphill through the back yard, and through a break in the trees onto a trail that led back downhill into the woods. It was crisscrossed in several places by what must have been dirt bike tracks. At the bottom was a pretty pond, and I stopped to get ready to fish.
"Not here," Richie said, pointing to our right. "The fish are in that pond."
I followed him and, sure enough, the pond we were at ended at a dirt road and there was a larger, more open one across the road. We started to fish and immediately started catching bullheads. It was too easy. Richie was telling me about Ken, and he seemed like somebody fun to know. He was divorced and lived alone, though there was usually somebody else staying there, too. Richie said Ken called them his refugees - other guys going through divorce or whatever. I got the idea that he was a nice, smart guy with a couple of kids of his own, though he didn't get to see them too much. What I liked to hear was that he loved anything with a motor attached to it. Me too! Before my father died, I was within an inch of convincing him to get me a minibike. I'd seen the dirt bikes in the driveway. One of them looked just my size.
... to be continued
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