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The hands move to the sides in a series of small arcs: things being in order, a plan.
I'm knocking tennis balls across the almond orchard behind the house with a genuine Louisville Slugger that Uncle Charlie gave me. Rufus, my dog, is fetching them but not bringing them back; instead, he's carefully dropping them in the weeds like they were kittens he was going to come back to play with later.
"Georgie, get those balls, will ya?" I say. It is August, nineteen hundred and fifty-one, and it is hot. Georgie's my little brother. He's six -- looks up to me.
"How come I got to get the balls?" he asks.
"'Cause Rufus ain't."
"How come you get to do all the hitting?"
"Because I'm on the baseball team and you're not."
"Why did Uncle Charlie only give you a bat?"
"Because only I need one." Georgie gives that a thought. He still hasn't moved a muscle in the direction of the balls. Rufus has come over and rolls on his back, looking and smelling like a bundle of wet straw, eyes peeking out, but, as usual, those eyes slipping off in two directions at once.
"Say, Paolo...," Georgie starts. My name is Paolo -- you say it "Pow-low," 'cause it's Italian. "Paolo," he says again, "how come Uncle Charlie is killing himself?"
I know better than to answer all his questions because he won't ever stop with them, but he's got me curious. "Well, who said that, Georgie?"
"Mom told Grandma, 'That man's been killing himself for years.'" Georgie looks at me with his big walnut eyes. "How come it takes so long to kill yourself?" Uncle Charlie has lived with us for as long as I can remember, lives in the attic of our old two-story house. I have six sisters and three brothers and a deaf cousin named Billy who lives with us too, and, still, our house is big enough we could take in Uncle Charlie and more if we had to. We'd make room if we didn't have it.
"Well...," I say, "it's...kind of a big job."
"Uncle Charlie is a hard worker, isn't he?"
"Well, sure, Georgie, but now he's retired, he's taking it slow." Uncle Charlie used to work as a coal miner in West Virginia, but I've never seen him do a lick of work except to go down to the grocery to cash his government check and get a six-pack of Hamm's beer and a carton of Camels.
"Why he want to kill himself, anyway, Paolo?"
"Well...Say, you going to shag those balls or what?" I don't have any more to hit, and Rufus has got up and gone back to his "kittens" and is moving them off to another spot under an old mulberry tree.
"Why don't we go ask him?" Georgie says.
"First of all, 'cause he's asleep, and second, it ain't a polite thing to do, Georgie. You don't go asking grown folks about their work. It's like asking them how much money they make."
"You get money for killing yourself?"
"What?" I start off to get the balls before Rufus chews them to pieces.
Georgie suddenly finds his little-kid legs and scurries after me. "Paolo, you suppose we'll ever get jobs?"
"I'm twelve, and I've already had lots of jobs."
"What sort of jobs?" he asks, all suspicious. Georgie thinks I tell stories, which is not true, as it is well known that Ernie, my oldest brother, is the storyteller in our family. He's already twenty-one. I asked him once what was the difference between a lie and a story, and he said it's a story if they believe it. In that case, I would say that, mostly, I am not a liar.
"Shoot, Georgie, I've worked busing tables at
the Downtown Café, was a private detective, a handyman, a roofer, and I told fortunes for a nickel each at the church picnic last summer. Remember when I told Mrs. Tuttle her dog was going to have six litters of pups in a row, that her sister in Iowa was going to marry an oilman from Arabia, that someone was going to steal all her prize oranges?"
"Well, can I help it if you got a memory like a six-year-old?"
"Did that stuff happen?"
"Just the last one, but...that's not the point." I stop dead in my tracks and swing round to look down at my brother. "Say, Georgie, how would you like to work for me?"
"Well, it just occurred to me, you're old enough to hire out to the neighbors to do yard work and such."
"Why, sure. Once when I wasn't that much older than you I painted Mr. Stevenson's entire fence."
"Well, of course." I don't say that I had to on account I had spray painted it with paolo, the greatest in the world, and when my dad saw that the red paint on my hands matched the sign, I had to, or else stay in my room for the summer and read the Encyclopædia Britannica. I'd already read it, so I did the fence job.
My dad isn't a mean one, so he doesn't smack me or anything -- never would. He uses Chinese mind torture. I don't know where he learned it, as he came from the Appalachians, and they grow mostly yellow-haired kids with blue eyes like my dad and myself back there.
Well, the evening of the day I did my sign on Mr. Stevenson's fence, we're having dinner. Mom, who's Italian and will only speak English when she wants to, hollers us kids in to eat, hollers something incredible -- as if we'd got lost or been stolen by gypsies. My mom thinks there are gypsies everywhere just waiting to steal kids or, worse, put the evil eye on you. I've never actually seen a gypsy, but I know what the evil eye is. It's just like Chinese mind torture.
My sisters had made enough spaghetti to fill one of those little red wagons, and they'd dumped it on a big platter in the middle of the table, making a little mountain we were all working our way up, when my dad put the evil eye on me. Did it when he saw me reach out with one of my red hands for some meatballs. That eye, laid on my hand, put it to sleep like a dentist's novocaine. I pulled it back, slow, and let it drop, heavy, in my lap. Now, I knew my other hand had some red paint on it too, so I left it to rest with the other. You'd think somebody would've said something or noticed I was just sitting there, but of course my brothers Ernie and Hector were too busy winding spaghetti into their faces to care and my sisters were jabbering their sister stuff to one another.
At some point I decided to nab a slice of bread and started working my fingers across the table like Indians sneaking up on a wagonload of goodies when I felt my whole self getting solid like a log that's been floated too long in water. I looked over slowly at my dad. He had one brow raised over that terrible eye, which -- with a rod of righteousness shaking out of it and coming, probably, all the way from the Old Testament -- was pointing right at myself, the very air shaky with its authority.
That's a torture I can't ever take, so I excused myself, and it was a relief when Hector came up to my room later and said, "Hey, squirt, Dad says you're to paint Mr. Stevenson's fence." Hector is eighteen and smart as a genuine professor; he's short, has shiny quick eyes like a field mouse, and hair that is one kinky wave, barber-clipped short to keep it out of trouble.
"I guess I should've cleaned up my hands," I said.
Hector, who was standing there with a book he's reading, looking over it and down his nose, said, "Maybe 'Paolo, the Greatest in the World' painted four feet high clued him in."
Hector loved my squirming at being ignorant, but he pretended otherwise, always acting as if he were just reporting what was obvious and didn't take any particular relish in having to inform me. I looked at the book he had. Odyssey it said on the spine. "That any good?" I asked, to change the subject.
"Well, yes, actually, it's quite good. It's a story of a journey -- "
"Oh, a travel book," I interrupted.
"Well, not exactly." Hector was taking me seriously and was about to launch into one of his lectures, those kind that are more interesting to the one telling than the one listening, and I started practicing my looking right at a body whilst I'm in a trance, like Dr. Hypnotico at the county fair last year. "You see...," Hector said. I had my eyes right on his mouth, but my mind was picturing water swirling down a black drain.
Georgie wakes me from my remembering when he asks, "How much you suppose I could make doing yard work for folks?" He's squinting past me, so I look too and see Rufus swallowing a tennis ball. Now, any other dog, that'd kill 'em. Not Rufus. He's as big as a Shetland pony and in his time has already eaten a beach towel, some firewood, three of my sisters' dolls, and the hat of our neighbors' Japanese gardener. That gardener was so mad, I thought he was going to give himself a heart attack. If you ask me, he had a temper problem. His face was leaking sweat like old plumbing near to exploding when he came to the door and asked if I was going to pay for the hat. I said I didn't speak Japanese. I motioned with my hands that he should maybe take care to get out of the sun and closed the door.
Later my dad got wind of all that and gave me three dollars that I had to give Mr. Harimoto to get himself a proper hat. Said from now on to keep Rufus off the neighbors' hats and clothes or anything else he might fancy munching.
"Well, Georgie, I suppose you could make twenty-five cents an hour, and let's see, after taxes and what I'd have to charge you to do your taxes and my management fees, why, you'd clear at least four cents. Shoot, why, maybe...even a nickel."
"Paolo, why do I need managing?"
"'Cause you'd be a professional, Georgie. All professionals have managers."
"How come you always got to boss me in everything I do?"
"When is it, exactly, that you do things, Georgie? I mean working things?"
Georgie sticks out his lower lip.
"Aw, you don't have to worry; I wouldn't be bossing you at all. You wouldn't even have a boss. You'd be working for yourself. I'm just offering to manage the business end of things so's you'll be free to concentrate on the working part. It's just how it's done, Georgie."
"What neighbors are going to hire me, you think?" he asks. Rufus is lying in the shade of his tree now, looking satisfied and full. Georgie sits down and starts petting him. Georgie is Italian-dark, like my mother, and gentle. Together, he and Rufus look what grown persons think is cute.
"Georgie...suppose that we first give you and Rufus a bath, and then you go up to people's doors and ask them if they have any chores for you. Say you need to make some money 'cause your dog is sick and needs an operation."
Georgie's eyes fill up with tears like spoons of some dark medicine. "Rufus is sick?"
"No, no, silly. Not yet."
That bad medicine spills off and rolls down his cheeks.
"I mean, no, Rufus ain't sick -- and won't ever be."
"You said..." He starts sucking air like somebody who's got a chicken bone in their neck or the way Mr. Quigley did in the hallway at San Joaquin High School when he got told his boy, James, got shot down by a Russian MiG jet fighter in Korea. The way I heard it from Ernie was that James bailed out over the ocean at the last second and was rescued by two dolphins and a navy frogman. Came back to Orange Grove City, California, last year, a hero. Brought one of those dolphins too. Keeps it in the basement in a Doughboy pool. You can't see it or even talk about it, as the North Korean government never gave it a passport and James Quigley's no dummy, even if his dad is a teacher.
"Forget about that, Georgie. I'm just saying that if you were to take Rufus along, it might help you get hired." He's hugging Rufus tight now. Rufus just groans but is patient and lets him until he decides to return the favor and starts licking Georgie's head. Rufus could be a lion if he wasn't a dog. He's part St. Bernard and part English sheepdog, minus their smarts. I sit down. "You know, Georgie, have you ever wondered what Mrs. Pineroe has got in that old mansion of hers?"
Georgie stops his sniffling. His hair is dog-licked up like the wick of a candle, and his eyes are wide and suspicious. "No," he says, so quiet it's hardly a whisper, but he knows -- he's already part of my plan.
Copyright © 2006 by D. James Smith