“Get your skinny asses inside the car,” Bill Miller yelled as he slowed the Plymouth LTD by pressing a worn break pedal with a cheap penny loafer. He wore his black penny loafers everywhere, even as house slippers while at home. The only time he put on boots was when he went to work in Tyrone building the county’s first public septic system—there he wore steel-toe boots, for he was a brick layer, and of course, he wore insulated boots when he went hunting, but even then, he would have preferred to have on his penny loafers.
“I said get in the car before I pull over and put a foot up your ass!”
Aunt Marg was sticking her head outside the car window, permitting the fragrant honeysuckle, aerodynamic winds to tease her spaghetti long hair. I was attempting to make the sound of the American Indian heading off to war with the white man—screaming at the top of my lungs into the winds that silenced my cries, popping my ‘O’ shaped mouth with my little hand, for only the woods outside to hear, and it is true, if a little boy falls from a car in the woods, no one hears him.
“Oh my God, Mom, Charlie’s head is stuck in the window.”
Liz, not turning to look at what damage she may have done, stared straight ahead with her beehive, bobby pinned hair unshaken and rolled the car window back down.
“I can’t swim at Whipple Dam,” Aunt Marg protested as she sat back in the leather seat. “The water is too cold there, so I gotta cool off now. Sorry about that Dad. I wish you would have taken us to Lakemont Park instead.”
“Go to bed,” Bill replied as he unconsciously guided the Plymouth and lit a PalMal cigarette with his lighter that lit with just one flick, despite all the wind blowing around inside. The phrase ‘go to bed’ was a term of endearment used by the Miller household. It was said in response to one who complained too much—
“I hate being poor. I wish I had new shoes for school this year.”
“Go to bed.”
“It’s so damned hot in the house, Dad. How much wood did you put in the furnace this morning?”
“Shut up and go to bed.”
“I’m going swimming at Whipple’s” I shared with Aunt Marg as I slowly made my way again to the open car window after picking all the white threads from a pair of cut-off shorts Mom had crafted from an old, worn pair of Toughskin jeans.
“Go right ahead. I ain’t. You’ll catch a case of the Whipples if you do, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“What are the Whipples?”
“You know, when you have goose bumps so bad that your lips turn purple. With nigger lips like yours, you’re bound to catch it.”
My brother Bill laughed hysterically, breaking from a conversation with Uncle Steve about how to properly tie a hook onto fishing line—
“That’s what Charlie gets for chewing his blanket every night. You should see him—he puts almost the whole thing in his mouth. He stretched his lips and now they are gonna stay like that forever. That blanket turned brown and mom had to cut the edges off and re-sew it, but he’s chewin’ it again.”
“Shut up, Bill,” I said, crawling over him and Uncle Francis to a spot at the front next to Uncle Dave with greasy hair.
“Where are your sneakers?” Grandma asked.
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, who do you think is going to carry you all over Whipple Dam today?”
I stretched my legs over Uncle Dave, resting my pigs on Pap’s Pap’s thigh next to the steering wheel, hoping to engage him in a game of This Little Piggy. Grandpap Miller would playfully squeeze my toes when he was in the mood for horsing around and apply enough pressure to cause enough pain to make me yell like an indian in the old westerns that he and Liz watched every evening—after wrestling was over. I loved the game, especially when he rubbed the bottom of my pink little feet over his rough, sandpaper beard, only to bite my little toes with a denture-free mouth.
“I can go into water up to my neck now, Pap Pap! You should see me swim.”
“Yep—was in up to my belly button in the crick back home. When Uncle Francis puts me on his back and goes under, I do too—you should see me. I can swim to the other side of the crick and jump off the bank if I feel like it.”
“I cannot believe I let you kids still swim in that filthy crick,” Grandma said. “It’s a wonder you don’t catch infantiagio or something. We don’t have town sewage like they are getting up in Tyrone. Just think of all the septic tanks in Petersburg. Where do you think they run off into? That crick ain’t good for younz kids. You are right, Charlie—it’s best to swim here at Whipple Dam. If the water’s cold, it’s fresh—that’s how you can tell good, fresh water.”
“He cannot swim all the way to the other side of the crick,” brother Bill objected. “He walks across the rocks we put up for a dam, that’s all.”
“You kids better not be building a God damned dam on the crick. The water already comes up to the cellar door if it rains too much.”
Grandpap Bill reached for the silver turn-signal switch and tapped it downward to indicate a pending left turn. We stirred the dust from the mountain roadway that led to a parking lot covered in limestone pebbles.
“Hurry-up, Francis. Get out and go claim that pavilion before the man carrying the watermelon makes it there first!” Pap Pap ordered.
Uncle Francis dashed past an iron, hand-pumping water fountain and rushed quickly to our favorite picnic place. He leaped upon one of the wooden tables like a flying ant, put a chew of snuff in his mouth, and sat with a serious look in his eyes, waiting for the remainder of the Millers to join him. The frown on his youthful face was mischievous but serious and the look in his eyes turned a shade of darker brown as his mind started to buzz from the pinch of Skoal between the skin of his lower lip and teeth that had recently grew in.