The next day I spent time with Bones, sneaking leftovers out to him from the kitchen and letting him get to know me. I ended up giving him bread and some gravy that had been in the refrigerator for a few days, along with some baloney and stale rice. It wasn’t much of a meal, but he ate it the way he had everything else—in huge gulps.
I sat with him trying to figure out what breed of dog he was. I had no idea. Later, the vet told me he appeared to be a yellow lab mix. Healthy, he would weigh about seventy pounds or more, maybe eighty. The first time I took him to the vet he weighed only thirty-seven pounds.
When it was almost time for the party boats to return, I made my way to the boat docks. I got there just as the boats were arriving so Tommy wouldn’t have much time to question me. If the boats were just docking, he would be forced to start asking for work as the tourists disembarked. Also, if he told me to get lost, I could ignore him because he would be too busy getting work to do anything about it. Of course, I would have to face him later if that happened, but I would deal with it then.
I arrived with my pliers, filet knife, and fish scaler. The pliers were for gripping the skin of those few fish that needed to be skinned. Skinning was an extra thirty cents per fish, which was only necessary for certain ones, so I was hoping that I could get a few of them. As I expected, Tommy saw me coming and walked over to me, a look of doubt on his face. I could tell he was prepared to send me packing, regardless of my saying I’d turned thirteen.
“What you think your doin’, kid?” he asked, sneering at me.
“I just turned thirteen and was going to clean fish.”
“When’s your birthday?” It felt like a job interview and I guess in a way, it was.
“I turned thirteen on Wednesday.”
“What year ya born?”
It took him a moment to do the simple math in his head. He was still suspicious. “Ain’t you Cookie’s kid?” Cookie was my dad’s nickname. He had been a cook in the navy, but he rarely did any cooking anymore.
“Yeah.” I stood there in a posture that I hoped was a mixture of defiance and respect for his self-proclaimed authority.
“I didn’t think your birthday was in summer. I always thought it was later.”
“You’re probably thinking of my brother. He went in the marines.” I silently prayed my lie would work. My brother’s birthday was in April.
He eyed me. Deciding he couldn’t prove I was lying, I suppose, he nodded.
“Take the end of the line,” he said, unhappy about the added competition but forced to stick to his own rule.
The end of the line meant I wasn’t allowed to be the first to greet the tourists. I had to be last in the line of kids asking to clean fish. I would end up asking the people that the other boys were too busy to take, and it was no guarantee anyone would be hiring anyway. I sighed, again figuring this would be the best deal I could get.
I took my place as the tourists began stepping carefully off the boat, carrying their day’s catch and laughing from too much fun and beer. Tommy, of course, was first in line.
“Can I clean your fish for ya?” he asked one fat guy with a bad sunburn he would feel after he sobered up.
“How much?” asked Mr. Sunburn.
“Only ten cent a pound. Beats doin’ it yourself.”
Sunburn considered for a moment before giving the answer many of them gave once they thought about the mess and work they could escape.
“Okay, you got a deal.”
One after another, the tourists filed past, many giving their fish to a kid. Some, though, weren’t hiring, thinking they would clean the catch themselves or perhaps mount the best of them. The tourists were beginning to thin out, and I still didn’t have any work.
The boy in front of me, a guy named Carl Hicks I didn’t know but recognized from school, was asking the last tourist off the boat if he wanted his fish cleaned, mentioning the price in his pitch. The man, carrying at least twenty-five pounds of fish, was about to answer when I blurted out, “I’ll clean it for nine.”
The man looked at me and back at Carl, who was already glaring at me for starting a price war. Carl glanced at Tommy. Tommy had begun cleaning his customer’s fish and didn’t notice, but something told me that didn’t make any difference. He would hear about this and beat me senseless.
“Can you go under that?” the tourist asked Carl, obviously pleased.
Carl cut a look at me while he gave his answer. “No,” he said, sounding as sullen as he looked.
“You’re hired,” the tourist said to me, and I took his catch to the scale for weighing. Twenty-seven pounds. I did the math in my head.
“It’ll be $2.43. If you want, I can skin the triggerfish. It’s better that way, and it would only be another thirty cents. That would bring it to $2.73.
“Sure,” said the man.
I saw Carl step up to Tommy and speak to him. Tommy looked over at me then spoke to Carl.
I pretended not to notice, but my heart was doing back flips. I was in for it and nobody would take my side. I had been desperate and blurted out the lower price, and now I wondered how much of the money I would be allowed to keep.
Being unused to cleaning this many fish, I was the last one done, and the guy paid me $2.75 since he didn’t have the exact change.
I thanked the man and started toward the dirt road that led to the highway, hoping I could get away without being stopped by the other boys. No such luck. They circled around and headed me off, surrounding me like a pack of wild dogs practiced at cornering prey.
I looked around at the circle of faces, none of them friendly. I was trapped.
Tommy did the talking. “Carl says you undercut his price.”
“What about it?” I said as if what I’d done was the norm. “There isn’t any sign that says there’s a set price.”
“Well, there is,” said Tommy, menace in his tone. “No sign, but it’s agreed. The price for cleanin’ fish is ten cent a pound. No more.” His voice hardened. “And no less.”
I could hear my heart beating. “I didn’t know that. I need the money kind of bad.”
“Carl?” Tommy said, speaking to Carl but still looking at me with a dangerous smirk. “Did ya need the money, or was it just for skippin’ coins across the water?”
Carl said, “Yeah, I needed it.”
Tommy continued staring at me. “We all need the money, kid. That’s the idea here. This is my cigarette money.”
“Same here,” said Carl, and my head spun around to him again. “What should I do for my cigarettes, kid?”
“Maybe we could light him up and smoke him,” suggested one of the other boys. Cruel laughter rippled through the pack.
“I’m sorry, I spoke without thinking. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“You’re right about that, at least,” said Tommy. He looked at the other boys, and I knew it was the signal to attack me.
With a rush, they were on top of me, pummeling and kicking. Fortunately, we rarely wore shoes in the summer. Still, I felt a sharp pain in my side as a boy kicked me in the ribs. I tasted blood when Carl punched me in the mouth. I could feel the teeth loosen as my cut lip ballooned. My nose felt broken, and one eye was already swelling shut.
Finally, the boys parted from their handiwork, moving once again into a circle to consider me the way any animal pack looks at fallen prey. Carl was reaching into my pockets and taking the money, including the dime I had found beside the road on my way to the docks that afternoon. I had thought I was lucky when I found it.
I lay there crying as defeat settled on me, but it was more than that. I wondered where I would get money to feed Bones. I couldn’t keep taking groceries out of my house. If my parents caught me, they would beat me too, even though that rarely happened, but stealing from my family would surely lead to a severe whipping.
The thought of not being able to feed Bones was worse than the beating I had received at the hands of this senseless mob who were more interested in where they got their next pack of smokes than in saving a good dog’s life. I probably couldn’t keep Bones. My dad would make me put him down instead, explaining if I couldn’t make the money to feed and care for him, he would be better off dead. I even began to worry about the money my dad would expect for my rent.
Tommy leaned over me and growled, “You’re banned from the docks, kid. You show up again and the beatin’ will be worse. You got me?”
I did. He had just sentenced my dog to death. I wondered where I could find more work but couldn't think through the pain and the threat of loss. The idea anyone would hire a kid with a broken nose, a fat lip, a black eye, and probably a few cracked ribs seemed ridiculous.
Bones was as good as dead.
The sun was nearly setting when the boys began their walk toward the highway, leaving me in the sand. Carl called out his final insult. “Thanks for cleaning those fish for me.” They went away, their harsh laughter sounding through the approaching dusk.
I managed to sit up and take inventory of my injuries. Maybe my nose wasn’t broken, and perhaps my ribs were only bruised. Still, I ached all over. Against the onslaught, I could do no better than wrap my arms around my head and hope for the best. Fighting back would have been useless. The tears were drying, and the flow of blood from my nose and mouth had nearly stopped. I was wondering what I looked like when a man’s voice rang out from the dimness nearby.
“They sure got the best of you.”
I looked up but the last flashes of the setting sun gleamed behind him, preventing me from seeing him clearly. I squinted, trying to soften the glare, my vision also hindered by the swelling around my right eye.
“What?” I’d heard him, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I said that they sure got the best of you.”
“There were seven of them.”
“I know. I saw.”
It took a moment to understand that a grown man, had witnessed my beating without even saying anything to my attackers. It had not been a fair fight.
“Why didn’t you stop them?” I asked.
“Well, first it wasn’t any of my business, but mostly it occurred to me that seven strong, young boys who would attack a kid smaller than they were would think nothing of taking revenge on an old man like me.”
Great, another coward, I thought to myself. “Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Mr. Pittman. Henry Pittman. I live in the broken-down bus.”
That made things a bit clearer. I knew who he was. Down by the docks, near where the ground rose sharply uphill to the highway, a dilapidated school bus had sat for as long as I could remember. All the tires were flat, and the engine was gone. Curtains hung in the windows, which were always closed, even in the summer heat. Its owner was a man who looked to me like the actor Burl Ives. I guessed he was in his mid-to-late fifties, maybe older, though it turned out he was only fifty-three. He had a salt-and-pepper goatee and mustache to match his thinning hair, and he was a man who carried nearly half his weight around his middle. I sometimes saw him drinking beer in Kirby’s Oyster Bar, where my father worked.
As I considered his explanation for not stopping the attack, I realized, coward or not, he was right. If he had tried to break up the fight, Tommy and the other boys would have paid him no attention until they had nothing better to do than harass an old man. Then, they would remember his attempts and act as if it had been a tremendous problem for them at the time.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Do you have a last name, Jack?”
He looked at me with dawning recognition. “You’re Cookie’s boy, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. He works at Kirby’s,” I added without needing to because I could think of nothing else to say.
“I know. I go there sometimes for a beer.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen you in there.”
“Come to think of it, I’ve seen you there, too. You want to come in and sit for a minute and get bandaged up?” he asked, gesturing toward the bus as if it were an award-winning hospital.
“That’s alright,” I said. I didn’t relish the thought of spending the evening keeping the old guy company. “I’m not hurt that bad.”
“Well, at least you could wash the blood off your face. You look like something out of a horror movie.” Then he chuckled. “They could call it I Was a Teenage Punching Bag.”
Ignoring his attempt at humor, I realized he was probably right. I didn’t want to go home looking like this. I stood and brushed the dirt and sand off as best I could and began to trudge up to where he was standing. As I approached, his large body blocked the sun, allowing me to see him more clearly. He was smiling at me as if he'd been expecting me for some time. It was a friendly smile that warmed the ice blue of his eyes. He had no pity in his gaze, just understanding. I’d always ignored him before, figuring he was just the crazy old guy living in the broken-down bus.
We walked to the bus and I followed him inside, never thinking he could be dangerous. I guess it was a different time back then. I wonder now how often unfounded fears prevent us from getting to know good people.
“Sit over there at the table,” he said as we entered, pointing at the small, cloth-covered table and two lone chairs perched along one side of the bus. As I sat, he shuffled toward the rear.
While he was back there, I took time to look around the bus I had wondered about so often. Just how did an old man live in a bus? Where was the bed? Leaning out from my seat, I noticed the answer to my question. About half way back, squeezed between a small dresser and something that looked like a free-standing closet, sat a bed, or at least what passed for one. A thin mattress covered a small frame, which I recognized as an old, folding army cot. A threadbare blanket was spread neatly over the foot of the bed. A yellowed pillowcase that matched the dingy sheets covered the shapeless pillow. Toward the front of the bus, maybe three feet in front of the dresser that sat perpendicular to the wall, was the small table where I now sat. It was one of those chrome-legged tables so often found in cheap diners. The chair I sat in was chrome as well, with thin, red plastic that served as its upholstery. The plastic covering was torn in spots, allowing the thin padding beneath to poke out in small tufts. It reminded me of soft, white hair. Another ragged chair like it stood opposite me between the table and dresser like a boxing referee. A curtain was spread the width of the bus beyond the closet. I assumed it was where the bathroom was because once when I was walking by, I had seen pipes that connected the bottom of the bus to something below the ground, probably a septic system.
He returned and removed some bandages and peroxide from the small first-aid kit he had brought from the back.
“Mr. Pittman, I…”
“Call me Hank,” he said, inspecting his supplies. “All my friends call me Hank.”
“Well, Hank,” I said, trying out the idea of calling an adult by his first name, “you don’t need to do this. I’m fine.”
“It’s the least I can do, seeing as how I couldn’t stop it.”
Without further conversation, he arranged his materials like a doctor before beginning to work on my injuries. I decided I liked him. He was friendly and easy-going, and he didn’t treat me like a little kid, which I appreciated. Many adults talk to kids my age as if we were barely smart enough to walk and breathe at the same time.
While he fixed me up, he talked about fishing, the tourists, his bus, and the fishing boats, asking for my thoughts on each topic, talking to me as if I had legitimate opinions. No other adults treated me as if I mattered.
“Alright. Go look at yourself,” he said when he’d finished.
I looked around for a mirror. “Where?”
He chuckled. “Oh, sorry. Go through the curtain and you’ll see the bathroom. You’ll find a shaving mirror on the little table where the washbowl is.”
I went through the curtain where a small battery-operated camping lantern lit an area that I was sure nobody besides Hank had ever been. A space that took up the rear five or six feet of the bus housed a toilet and small shower, both badly in need of cleaning. A tiny table sat nearby with a filthy porcelain bowl that he used for a bathroom sink, its faucet standing on one of the pipes that led down into the ground below. Anchored to the table where the bowl sat was a small, round mirror connected to an arm that would expand and collapse like an accordion, allowing the mirror to be raised to the height of the person using it. I stretched out the mirror and took stock of my injuries and Hank’s doctoring.
Hank had mostly just cleaned off the blood and put band-aids on the cuts. I had a black eye and a swollen lip that I knew was cut on the inside. My nose reminded me of a tiny rose in full bloom. A cut on my left cheek stood out near the black eye. A small butterfly bandage held the cut on my cheek closed. I thought it looked as if it needed a couple of stitches, but I would never see a real doctor because my parents didn’t believe in medical help unless it would save someone’s life. The lip that seemed to weigh six pounds wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. It was swollen, but not nearly as big as it felt. I liked Hank’s handiwork and I liked Hank. He hadn’t gone overboard with the bandages, and I thought they made me look tough.
I turned to leave and noticed a wall with some black and white photographs. I could tell that some were of Hank when he was a lot younger, but I didn’t know who the other people were. One of Hank and a woman caught my attention, and I figured she must have been his girlfriend or wife or something. They were smiling and looked as if they liked each other. Another was of Hank and a small boy, with a younger girl looking on from behind them. I wondered if they were his children, and it was strange to think that this man who lived in a bus by the beach had kids somewhere. Then, I saw one of Hank in a military uniform. He was young, probably in his twenties or early thirties, and he had a bunch of medals and ribbons on his chest. One medal looked special. The only medal I recognized, a purple heart, was also pinned on him. I wondered how he was injured since they only gave it to people hurt in battle.
I had been in the bathroom long enough and went back out to where Hank sat putting away the first aid supplies. I considered asking him about the pictures but didn’t want to get in a long conversation with him about them.
I thanked him and started to say goodbye when he asked me to sit for a while.
“I don’t get many visitors. And you haven’t told me why you were so desperate to earn money that you would risk crossing the likes of those dock boys by starting a price war,” he said. Apparently, he’d heard more than I thought. “That boy Tommy is headed for no good, and it took a lot of nerve to do something you must have known would make him mad.”
I wondered if Hank would understand my problem, so I gave him the chance to prove he did. I told him how I found Bones and how my dad said I could keep him as long as I could pay for his needs. When I’d finished, Hank squinted at me. “You mean you’re doing this for a starving dog?”
He looked at me so long it made me uncomfortable before he said, “So what are you going to do now? You can’t go back to cleaning fish after what happened.”
I shrugged, as much at a loss as he was. “I guess I’ll go door-to-door asking for work. Maybe I could mow lawns with people’s mowers. I don’t have one to use. Or I could run errands or do other chores. I know I’ll do something though. I’m not sure how long I can get away with feeding Bones our leftovers without getting caught.” A thought occurred to me. “Or maybe I could get a paper route.”
“You have a bike?” he asked, his tone suggesting he knew the answer.
“I could walk my route,” I answered confidently.
Hank shook his head. “Take too long. People would be calling the paper complaining.”
“Oh,” I mumbled. “I guess you’re right.”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew his wallet, fishing out two dollars. “Here. Take this and get your dog some food. What you do with the rest is your business.”
“I don’t take charity,” I said. I wasn’t insulted. Charity had been offered before; I just didn’t accept it.
“It’s not charity,” he insisted. I looked at Hank. He was holding out the money and eyeing me strangely. I could tell he was thinking about something, considering something that somehow involved me, and for a moment I wondered if I hadn’t been wrong about his intentions. He set the dollar bills on the table. “You really want to work, don’t you?”
“Of course.” Where was he going with this?
“Come by tomorrow morning and I’ll have something for you to do. This is just an advance.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“We can start with cleaning up around here. I’m getting too old to do some of the things that need doing, and I could use someone to help me.”
“But what about after tomorrow? You can’t keep paying me money. Excuse me for saying so,” I said, looking around at the bus and its sparse furnishings, “but it doesn’t look like you have a lot of it to spare.”
He got a funny look on his face and said, “You’re right. I don’t. But I have those two and three more like them for you tomorrow. We can figure out what comes after that.” He must have figured out what I was thinking. “You won’t have to do anything, well, odd. I’m not like that.”
I considered his offer and finally reached down and picked up the money, stuffing it deep in my front pocket.
The next thing I knew I was on my way to Grayson’s Market for some dog food for Bones and a Coke for me. I bought two cans of the cheapest dog food they had, figuring Bones wouldn’t mind. After I paid, I had $1.41 left. When I got home, I fed Bones both cans and gave my mom the dollar for rent and hid the forty-one cents in a jar that I placed under a loose floorboard I knew about in my bedroom closet. This would be my savings for vet bills and maybe even running away some day.
Of course, my mom saw my face and asked what happened. I told her I’d gotten in a fight, but she should see the other kid. She didn’t ask if she could look at it closer or who had bandaged me up, and I didn’t tell her. She returned to the sofa, the TV, and her beer. A lot of kids would be bothered by that, but I was used to it. She and my dad loved me, I guess. It’s just they loved their booze more.
I went outside to feed Bones and sit with him for a bit. He was still too weak to play much, but he seemed to enjoy being with me. I ended up just sitting and petting him while watching the stars turn in the sky.
When I got up to go inside, he was sleeping soundly. I had fed him both cans of dog food—a feast for him—although the can only recommended one. I figured he had some catching up to do.
I had promised Hank I would be at his place at eight o’clock the next morning, so I went to bed to try to get some sleep. Still, it took a while to fall asleep because of the soreness and the distant lightning that periodically threw bright flashes through the thin curtains of my bedroom. I wondered how Bones was handling the coming storm but decided that would be a small thing compared to what he’d already been through.
It had been a full day, and the memory of it kept rolling around in my mind. In my memories, though, I held off the pack of boys single-handedly, even preventing them from jumping Hank and robbing him too.
I knew none of that had happened, of course, but that didn’t matter. My imagination was like my mother’s beer or my dad’s whiskey. It made me feel better than reality did.