Chapter Three of FLOATING TWIGS (c) 2017 by Charles Tabb

           

The following morning, I woke up later than I’d wanted, but still leaving enough time to make it to Hank’s by eight. The storm had knocked out the power along with the alarm clock by my bed, so I dressed quickly and went to check on Bones before heading to Hank’s and my first day of work.

            It was still raining, and I had no rain gear. I wore only a pair of cutoff jeans and a t-shirt.

            As I walked along the street toward the harbor, I stopped to look at the roads swollen with rainwater. My street sported a pair of temporary rivers along each side. These street-side rapids had always been a private playground for me. I loved to drop small sticks in the torrents and watch as the temporary rapids carried the twigs along to a destination only the water knew. I would follow the paths of nature’s intent until the twigs either became mired in a tangle of debris, where I would leave them, or were washed down a sewer line that eventually emptied into the Gulf of Mexico down at the waterfront, where the twigs, if they made it that far, would continue their unknown journey.

            Because I had stopped along the way to drop a few twigs and watch their voyage, I was late arriving at Hank’s. When I got there, I knocked on the bus’s doors, which swung open immediately.

            “Get in here!” Hank said. “Don’t you know we’re under a tornado warning?”

Looking inside the bus, I wasn’t sure if I would be safer inside or out. Even a small tornado could toss Hank’s makeshift home around as easily as I could throw a matchbox car. I stood there, undecided until Hank said, “Well?” I made my decision and stepped up into the bus, standing on the entry steps, dripping.

“Let me get you some towels to dry off,” he said and went to the cabinet for some towels.

“I didn’t expect you today, what with the weather the way it is,” he said, staring at me as he handed me the towels.

            “If I didn’t show up, I’d owe you the two dollars you gave me, and I’ve already spent it on Bones and rent.”

            “Rent?” he asked, surprised. I hadn’t told him that part of my story.

            “Yeah, that was another thing. My dad said if I was earning money, I had to pay rent.”

            Hank looked at me and shook his head. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but he looked troubled. I offered my dad’s explanation. “If I get the idea all the money I make is mine, I’ll be disappointed.”

“Your dad told you that?” Hank asked. I nodded. “How much you pay him of that two dollars?”

“A dollar. I gave it to my mom last night.”

“And what did she do with it?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. None of my business anyway since it’s their money.”

“Jack,” he said with a sigh, “nobody pays half their earnings in rent, especially if said rent is based on what the tenant earns.”

I looked back at him, confused. “So, how much should I pay? I kept out forty-one cents,” I said, proud of my planning. “My dad said that whatever didn’t go for Bones went for rent, but I have to save up to take Bones to the vet.” I left out the part about saving up to run away. Hank was a nice man, but that was one subject adults didn’t take kindly to, no matter how good the reason for leaving might be.

“If you applied for a home loan, they would figure you could afford up to a third of your take-home pay if you didn’t owe too many other bills.”

I wondered how he knew this. After all, he wasn’t exactly living in a nice home here. In fact, my house was probably worth more, but I ignored that argument. “You mean I should pay my parents a third of what I make?” I asked instead.

“At the most.”

I stood on the bottom step inside the doorway, rubbing the towel over my scalp and clothing. My shirt would dry quickly, but the shorts were another matter. The thick denim would hold the water for a couple of hours, but I was used to that even if I hated wearing wet shorts. Like most of Denton’s kids in summer, I wore no socks or shoes, so that wouldn’t be a problem at least.

When I had managed to dry myself enough to stop dripping, I took the seat Hank offered me, the same one I’d sat in the evening before. I draped the towel over the seat to keep it dry.

Hank had a four-burner propane camp stove and he had put a coffee pot on. When it was finished percolating, Hank made himself a cup of black coffee and offered me some as well. I was surprised since nobody had ever offered me coffee before. I accepted and sipped the hot brew, feeling like an adult, though not one, as it turned out, who particularly liked coffee.

“It can be an acquired taste,” Hank said, grinning at me.

I plunged on, forcing myself to drink so I could learn to love it as much as most of the adults I knew did. My dad had said that beer, wine, and liquor were acquired tastes, and I figured if I was going to acquire one, I would be better off drinking coffee. I’d seen what the others could do.

Once he’d finished his first cup, Hank stood, put on a large raincoat, and opened the doors of the bus, saying, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“Where you going?” I asked, curious where he would go in this torrent. I was a kid, walking in a storm was nothing for me. He was an old man.

“I’m going to get some bacon and eggs out of the refrigerator. We can have breakfast.”

“What if a tornado comes?” I asked.

“You’ll hear it before it gets here. Just crawl under the bus and pray if you do.” He stepped out into the wind and rain.

“Wait!  What refrigerator?” I asked, but he was already gone.

I watched out the window beside me as he shuffled as quickly as he could toward the boat docks. Taking out a key, he opened the offices for the party boats that moored there and went inside. Minutes later, he was rushing back toward the bus, a carton of eggs and a package of bacon in his hands. I wondered if I had just witnessed a theft.

When he came back into the bus, he could see the questions in my face.

“I watch over the docks when nobody’s here, sort of like a security guard. In return, Jerry Moreland lets me put my refrigerator in his office and use a sink to wash dishes and such. I let Jerry have one shelf of the fridge in case he wants to put a soda or two in there. I have no power in here, so I can’t have a fridge. It’s what’s called a symbiotic relationship. Jerry helps me and I help him.”

“Oh,” I said.

The various branches of the Moreland family, a widespread hodgepodge of David, the family patriarch, and his two sons, both of whom had grown children, owned most of the large party boats in Denton along with much of the property in the town. Jerry Moreland owned the docks where Hank had his bus parked—or his home, depending on how you looked at it.

There had also been two Moreland daughters, but they had married. One moved to Tallahassee and the other to Atlanta. The rumor was they rarely came back to Denton because they hated their father. As much as my dad wasn’t perfect, I still loved him, so I wondered why Mr. Moreland’s daughters hated him so. There had also been another son, but I heard he’d died.

Mr. David Moreland’s wife had died of cancer years ago, but young women were often seen at the family homestead though the faces changed on a nearly monthly basis. When I was about seven, I heard my dad say the faces changed, but not the figures. He had laughed at his joke, but I hadn’t understood it at the time.

Hank started the bacon cooking over the camp stove while we continued getting to know each other.

“Why aren’t you afraid of a tornado?” I asked. He’d looked worried enough when I had arrived that morning, but since I’d set foot inside, the worry had dropped to non-existent.

“Because, you shouldn’t be afraid of something you can’t control. If Ol’ Mother Nature decides to sweep my bus away, there’s not much I can do about it. I know I’d hear it before it hit, so I’d have time to crawl under the bus.”

“Couldn’t it still sweep you out with the bus?”

“Same answer. No use wasting time being afraid of something you can’t do anything about.”

“So the idea of a tornado or hurricane doesn’t bother you?” I asked.

“I didn’t say things like that don’t bother me. I respect them and the unbelievable power they have, but I’m not afraid of them. Fear makes people freeze up. When it comes time to act, you can’t. That’s more dangerous than storms.”

After breakfast, the rain let up, and I figured the tornadoes wouldn’t be coming for Hank’s bus that day. I rose from my seat, looked around and said, “So what do you want me to work on today?”

“Well, I was going to have you scrubbing the outside of the bus, but there’s no use in doing that now. We’ll need a dry spell for that since I want to paint it.” He looked around. “I’m not sure what you can do, actually.”

“How about if I clean your bathroom? No offense, but I noticed last night it could use it.”

Hank looked at me, surprised at my offer. “You’d clean my bathroom?”

“Of course. I owe you.” I didn’t really want to clean it, but it was true I owed him and I didn’t like feeling that hanging over my head. Without waiting for a response, I went to the back of the bus. “Where’s the sponges and cleaner?” I called.

“Bottom of the closet,” he said, and I went to work. When I’d finished a short time later, the entire area was spotless. I was proud of my work and hoped Hank would appreciate it.

“All done,” I announced.

He came to look and whistled at the results. “You’ve done well.”

Pointing at the picture of him and the lady that I’d seen the evening before, I asked, “Who’s that with you?”

He was silent and looked down at me. Finally, he said, “Maybe I’ll tell you one day.” I could tell my question brought up memories best left alone and was sorry I’d reminded him of them.

I continued working on the bus, cleaning the inside from front to back. By the time I left, the rain had stopped completely and the sun had started to peek out from behind the remaining clouds. He paid me the three dollars he said he would, telling me to give my parents no more than one of them, and I walked home, detouring to Grayson’s Market for more dog food. This time I bought six cans and another fifteen-cent soda, which came to $1.47. This left me a dollar for rent and fifty-three cents for my savings, bringing my savings to ninety-four cents. I was starting to feel prosperous for someone not even thirteen yet.

The next day I reported to Hank’s and he had me start scraping the bus down to ready it for painting, though I wasn’t sure why he would spend the money and time to do that. At the end of the day, he gave me another five dollars. I tried to give him a dollar back since he was also feeding me breakfast and lunch, but he wouldn’t take it. I told him he was paying me too much. Five dollars a day for a kid my age in 1968 was a mint. He assured me there would be days I would not get that much, as well as days he would have no work for me, so I should accept what he gave me and plan for the future.

I stopped at Grayson’s and just got a soda since I didn’t need more dog food yet. I gave my parents $1.70 for rent, rounding up to the nearest dime, and I was left with a whopping $3.15 for my savings jar beneath my closet. In just a couple of days, I had saved $4.09.

 I also stopped by the local vet’s office on my way home and talked to them. The lady there said Doctor Kelly, the vet, would look at Bones for ten dollars, but that any medicine Bones needed would be extra. She said the local humane society would pay for his shots since I was unable to afford them, and the doctor would neuter him for free as well. It was charity, but I figured it was for Bones, not me, so that was okay. I was also unsure whether or not I wanted him neutered, but the lady said if I didn’t do that, the humane society wouldn’t pay for the shots. I went home and apologized to Bones even though he had no more idea what was in store for him than those twigs floating down the road-wash.

Over the next few days, I managed to sock away the ten dollars needed to take Bones to the vet. I had to leave him overnight because of the surgery, which the vet almost didn’t do because of Bones’s condition. The lady at the welcome desk said I could pay for the medicine the next day since I had forgotten about that charge. I worked for Hank again and was able to make just enough to pay the vet off, and Bones had to wear this plastic cone around his neck for a few days to keep him from licking his stitches. I apologized to him again.

The doctor told me to feed Bones twice a day until he managed to get his weight and strength up. The next day at Hank’s we started painting the bus, and I knew that soon the money train would cease stopping at my door, which made me worry about having enough to pay for all that dog food.

By the time we had finished the bus, I had managed to save over twenty dollars. I’d thought I was rich before, but now I knew better. That money would be gone before I knew it. As everyone kept telling me, dogs were expensive, especially ones that had nearly starved.

I was surprised the loss of income wasn’t what bothered me the most when we finished working on the bus. It was the loss of Hank’s company and friendship.

When we stepped back to admire our work, I said, “You don’t have any work for me tomorrow, do you?” The words nearly caught in my throat.

“Not right now,” he said, as if I hadn’t asked about something vital. “You saved some money, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but—” I looked at the ground.

“But what?” Hank asked when I didn’t continue. The truth was I was afraid to say more. I feared I might start crying, which would embarrass me all the way to my stomach.

I continued anyway, praying I would be able to keep my composure.

“The money isn’t what’s bothering me,” I said.

“It isn’t?” Hank asked, his tone indicating he wasn’t sure what I meant.

“I—well, I like being with you. You’re nicer to me than my folks are.”

I felt his gaze on my shoulders as if it magnified the sun’s heat. He was silent as well for a moment before he said, “What? You thought I wouldn’t want you to keep coming by for coffee in the morning?”

I looked up at him and grinned, thankful he understood something I was too young to fully grasp myself, yet those same morning coffees were what led to the problems.