E. David Brown arrived in Canada in 1976 to attend the University of British Columbia where he met his wife, Terry Ades. They have lived in Montreal for forty-one years and have a daughter, Flannery. His career incarnations have included freelance writer, bartender, Human Resource Director, and CEGEP professor. He received a BA in English with a minor in History from the University of Houston, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and a Master's of Arts in Administration and Policy studies in Education from McGill University. While at UBC he was awarded the CBC award for screenplay and documentary work. Plateau Press published his novel “Tell You All”, a black humour retelling of the story of Lazarus. It received excellent reviews in The Canadian Jewish News, The Montreal Gazette and Montreal Review of Books. David is currently completing a memoir titled Nothing is Us. The story spans the globe, starting in 1951 and ending in 2001. Nothing is Us deals with racism in the U.S. south, Kennedy's assassination, the Cuban missile crisis, student response to the war in Viet Nam, the harmful effects of the military culture on families and the destructive cult of red-blooded American Texas patriotism, as well as the aftermath of David getting kicked out high school and the Navy.
Wildflowers of Colorado
In 1959 my family moved from Detroit to Colorado Springs. We arrived at midnight at our new house. My younger brother, Cal, and I stumbled through the dark guided up the walkway by the white tennis shoes of my mother and big sister. It was late, too late to see our hands in front of us much less the view of Pikes Peak my father assured us could be seen from the front yard. When I awoke there it was, the first real mountain I’d ever seen. It dominated the landscape like an enormous snow-cone. Our house was one of only six others completed on the street. All around stood the skeletal frames of dwellings under construction awaiting siding, roofing shingles, electrical wires, plumbing, toilets, bathtubs and families. ☼ On Monday my mother took us to school. It was the sixth school I’d gone to in as many moves. That’s how things go when your father is in the military. Just as you start to settle in and get to know people, you move. It’s exciting to see new places but it’s a pain to always be the new kid. Thomas Alva Edison elementary school was as new as the subdivision, so recent that the chalkboards retained their glossy sheen. The hallways smelled of fresh paint. The fluorescent lights cast a harsh white glow throughout the building. I entered my classroom and stood beside a desk like all the other students waiting for the teacher. Most of the kids were dressed in new school clothes and shiny hard soled penny loafers. My scuffed brown Hushpuppies stood out like a hobo’s shoes. Where other boys wore crisp cotton shirts with button down collars I wore a long sleeve T-shirt with purple and green stripes. Extra holes were poked in my belt to keep my pants from sliding down. The cuffs were rolled up at least 3 inches. One kid was dressed even worse than me. Taller than the other boys in class, he stood in a corner with his head bowed so low his chin hid his Adam’s apple. Saucer sized ears jutted out from the sides of his head. He wore an open plaid flannel shirt over one-piece long johns. His underwear showed through holes at his knees. A pair of suspenders tied in a knot to shorten their length held up his trousers. A woman entered the room, walked up to the blackboard, picked up a stick of chalk and wrote, “Mrs. Butterfield”. “Butterbutt is more like it,” a boy in a sunshine yellow shirt and tan slacks muttered. If Mrs. Butterfield heard him she didn’t let on despite the snickers of the other boys in class. She turned and motioned everyone to sit down. “I will be your fifth grade teacher this year. Some of you I know from last year. Still this being a new school and many of you being new to the area when I call your name introduce yourself to the class.” She glanced at a piece of paper on a clipboard and said, “Raymond Yulaberry.” The kid in the yellow shirt brushed a tongue of black hair off his forehead and said, “Please call me Ray.” “Ray it is then.” “Thank you, Mrs. Butterfield.” “Ray, tell us a little about yourself.” “My father built this school and most of the houses in this subdivision. He says the land around here once belonged to my mother’s people…“ Mrs. Butterfield quickly interrupted Ray, “Freddy Wilkenson tell us a little about yourself.” A kid with an enormous overbite blurted out, “He’s a preachers son so don’t go saying any bad words in front of him.” “Horace Menken sit down. It’s not your turn,” Mrs. Butterfield said and continued calling out names in reverse alphabetical order until she reached mine, “Ernie Sample.” “Please call me Mark,” I said. “Why would I refer to you as Mark when it is written on the class roll that your name is Ernie Sample?” “I go by my middle name, Mark.” “No, that won’t do, Raymond is allowed to be Ray because it is a proper diminutive of Raymond. The only diminutive I can think of for Ernie is Ern. Would you prefer if I referred to you as Ern Sample?” After the laughter died down I sighed and said, “No Mam.” “Go on Ernie. Tell us little about yourself.” “My father is in the Air Force. We got transferred here from Detroit, Detroit, Michigan.” Mrs. Butterfield shook a spindly finger at me and in a stretched voice said, “Ernie-I-know-in-which-state-Detroit-is-located. Do-you-know-the-capital-of-Colorado?” “Denver.” Mrs. Butterfield frowned and worked her way through the rest of the class list. The saucer ear boy waved and shouted out, “Hey Mrs. Butterfield it’s me again, Deacon Popay.” Ray cupped his hand over his mouth and said, “Deke the Geek is more like it.” “Deacon you know better than to wear a hat indoors.” “Sorry, Mam.” Deke snatched a dirty baseball cap off his head. A stubble of hair barely covered the scabs on his scalp. “What does this make, two times I have had the pleasure of your company in my class?” “That sounds right. My daddy always says third time is a charm.” “I hope this time is your last year with me Deke.” “Me too, don’t think I’d fit behind a desk if I had to repeat the same grade.” ☼ For a whole month Deke wore the same clothes he wore on the first day of school, his hands and face smeared with grime. I tried to avoid him. I had grief enough over my nickname. All I needed was for Ray and his button down crew to link me with Deke the Geek. Still I felt glad to have Deke in my class. His presence reduced the amount of time Ray and his pals picked on me. Reduce but not eliminate completely. Ray’s favorite gag was to step on my heels as he walked behind me. He pulled my shirt out of my pants. By far his greatest pleasure was flipping pennies into the rolled up cuffs of my jeans. This went on for about a month until I told my Mom that I refused to go to school unless I had a pair of pants that fit me and a real shirt with a button-down collar. She asked me why and I said, “Because boys say I dress like I do because we’re too stupid and poor to know better.” On the weekend Mom bought me a yellow, burgundy, and pink button-down shirt, two pairs of tan brushed denim slacks and a pair of loafers with tassels from Sears & Roebuck. When Cal saw me modelling the new duds in front of the mirror he threatened to barf on me. I strutted back and forth in front of my sister while she read a book in the living room. Her legs dangled over the armrest of an overstuffed wingback chair. I stood in front of her, deliberately blocking the light from the page. She twisted around and hung her legs over the other armrest. Again I moved to block the light. She held the book under my nose and yelled. “Mark, stop bugging me or I’ll make you eat this.” I puffed out my chest and thrust a shoe tip under the light. “Like my new clothes?” “You look just like Bobby Darin,” she said. “You really think so?” “How dumb can you be? Go away.”
☼ The morning started off great. I ate a soft-boiled egg with toast without getting anything on my new pink shirt. When I stood up I didn’t have to pull my pants up with me. They stayed in place thanks to a plain brown leather belt with a brass buckle. I smiled when I looked down at my loafers. I felt like whistling as I walked through the doors of Thomas Alva Edison elementary school. A surge of confidence rose in my chest. I went to the boys’ bathroom before the bell rang. Alone, in front of a mirror, I pointed my finger at my reflection and sang, “Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth —” I continued to belt out the song using a comb as a microphone. With my eyes closed my voice rose, “And it shows them pearly white —” A noise like a howling pack of hyenas on a National Geographic Special brought me back to the pine scented reality of the boy’s washroom. Ray and his two hanger ons blocked the exit. “Hey Ern Sample,” Horace Menken poked me and said, “You bite worse than the shark.” A red haired kid with freckles as big as raisins added, “His voice not that bad.” “Freddy is right, go ahead and finish the song,” Ray dared me. I held my breath and walked up to him, trying to appear cool. He stood to the side and let me pass. I wanted to rush back in and pee but continued down the hallway to my class. Ray and his buddies came in a few seconds after me. They milled about, talking to other kids in the class and pointed at me. Mrs. Butterfield stopped twice during the Pledge of Allegiance to wait for the giggling to die down. When the lunch bell rang I lingered behind the rest of the class. Deke stood ahead of me in the cafeteria line. He looked surprised as he always seemed to be at the end of everything. “Go ahead of me,” he said, “Ain’t really hungry, just waiting to get a carton of milk. It’s free you know.” Whatever peace I’d gained disappeared when Ray and his crew joined me. Horace Menken licked a finger, stuck it in my ear and let a whinny of a laugh through his huge buckteeth. “Leave him alone,” Ray ordered and took his place. My sense of relief was short lived. “Come on Ernie, sing something for us.” Ray said. “Yeah Ern Sample, don’t let your fans down,” Menken piped up. Freddy Wilkenson flicked Menken’s ear, “Come on give him a break.” I moved forward another foot. Ray kept needling me to sing. I wanted to flee outside and wait for the bell to ring but I knew that doing so would make me look like a wimp. So I moved a foot forward. Ray pulled my new shirt out of my pants. I reached behind me and tucked it back in. He did it again and again I tucked it in. He stepped on the back of my shoe. “Stop it,” I said. After three more times I yelled, “Knock it off or else!” Ray did not have an opportunity to ask, “Or else what?” I shoved him so hard that he fell backward into Menken, who in turn fell into Freddy. The three of them lost their balance and ended up sprawled on the floor. All heads in the cafeteria line turned and filled the cafeteria with laughter. Ray raised his fist and shook it at me. “You’re going to get it.” I shook my fist back at Ray and said, “Where and when asshole?” Ray’s jaw dropped. As tough as he played he was not used to hearing such language. Having lived on military bases my whole life I’d heard soldiers throwing out curses as freely as Halloween candy. The rest of the day passed without incident. I thought maybe Ray had decided to let things slide. Freddy slipped me a note at the end of class. I unfolded it and felt my stomach cramp. “After school! At the empty lot across from the playground! You’ll get yours!” When the school day ended I hung back waiting for everyone to leave. As I crossed the playground I saw a group of kids gathered in a bare lot. I thought of changing directions and taking the long route back home. If I hadn't been wearing my new pants and shoes I might have considered this option. But that would necessitate climbing up and down hills slick with gravel and full of cockleburs and spiny cacti. “Hey Ern Sample, I thought you’d chicken out,” Menken yelled. “He would have if they’d let him sleep overnight at school,” Freddy said. “Hee-haw, that’s a good one, hee-haw,” Menken laughed. Ray pushed his way through the circle of fight enthusiasts. “You sound like a jackass when you laugh.” He sneered at Menken. He balled up his fists and stood toe-to-toe with me. I shrugged and my school bag slipped off my shoulders. “You take the first punch,” Ray said. “No, you take the first punch.” “No, you.” “Why?” “Because I don’t want anyone saying I started it.” “But you did start it.” “No, you did.” I lifted my fists, keeping my head down so Ray would hit me on the forehead instead of my nose. Before either one of us could strike, Deke walked between us. “Your mamas gonna be steamed you come home with your good school duds all tored up and dirty.” Ray pointed at my new pants. “You just got those didn’t you?” I nodded. Ray stroked his red cardigan with a crest of a horse on the right breast pocket. “My mom bought me this yesterday. She’ll be really ticked-off if I come home with it ripped.” “Mine too,” I said. We both started to walk away when Menken said, “That’s it? You’re going to blow it off because of you’re afraid to get your clothes dirty?” He put his hands under his armpits, flapped his bent arms and squawked like a chicken. Ray pushed him to the ground then took two quick steps toward Freddy who slipped behind Deke. “I didn’t say it’s over. We’ll fight later when we’re not dressed in our good school clothes.” “When?” Menken asked. “Yeah when?” a wave of kids' voices washed over us. “On Friday,” Ray said. “Unless of course you’re too chicken to wear your old clothes to school.” “I’ll wear my old clothes all right,” I said. “You had better wear your worst ones because there’s not going to be inch left that doesn’t have your blood on it.” “Don’t worry about my clothes but you better bring two of everything,” I said. Ray asked, “Why two of everything?” I couldn’t think of answer and said as I walked off, “You'll find out Friday.” ☼ Usually the end of the school week took forever to arrive. Not this time. Ray and I maintained a distance and seldom made eye contact during class. On Thursday we were paired up on a dodge ball match in gym class. Our team was whittled down until only Ray and I were left. On the other side Freddy Wilkenson, Carl “the brain” Shenker, Horace Menken, and Grace Gonzales, the best athlete girl or boy in the school, fired off rubber balls like cannon shots. Ray and I dodged, ducked and slid on our knees to avoid getting nailed. The air whooshed out of Menken when I drilled him in the stomach. Ray jumped in the air and turned sideways to avoid a ball fired at him by Freddy. On his way down from his leap he caught the ball and nailed Freddy in the back of his head. Carl caught the ball as it rebounded off of Freddy and whipped it from waist level at Ray. I saw it coming and yelled, “Look out,” and pushed Ray back to avoid getting hit. “Thanks,” he said and picked up the ball and hit Carl in the back. We smiled at one another as we looked at the tall raven-haired girl shuffling from foot to foot across the gym from us. Our smiles didn’t last long. Grace scooped up two balls from the floor and charged to the half court line. She threw both balls with such speed and accuracy that we didn’t have time to blink much less dodge. We fell to the polished wooden floor and writhed around like wounded soldiers. Grace pumped her fist in the air. “Still the champ,” she announced with no one left to disagree with her. When we stood up Ray gave me a tap on my shoulder. He backed off when Menken blurted out, “Ray you going to kiss him or fight him tomorrow?” Ray’s eyes narrowed to slits. He stared across the gym at Menken and Freddy, shoved his way past me, and walked out of the gym. “You’re really going to be in for it,” Menken said. “Yeah, you’re going to be pulper-pulperized,” Freddy, added without conviction. I raced across the gym but was trapped mid-way by Grace. “That’s pulverized preacher boy, and that’s enough. We’ll all get in trouble,” she warned us. “Come on Gracie let him go. We’ll soften him up for Ray,” Menken said. The smirk disappeared from his face when Deke appeared. “Two against one just don’t seem fair.” “He’s right,” Freddy said under his breath. Deke had been sitting on a bleacher since the beginning of P.E., he wasn’t allowed on the wooden floor in his work boots. The gym teacher had told him if he didn’t get a pair of sneakers by next class he’d fail. Deke had smiled and said that he just have to sit this one out as an F was a lot easier to come by than the money for sneakers. Deke draped his long arms over Menken and Freddy. They squirmed under his weight when he leaned over and whispered, “Don’t get all itchy on me. I bathed on Sunday and used kerosene on my gourd. I think it killed most of the cooties.” Menken and Freddybroke free of Deke and dashed toward the boy’s lockeroom. “Works every time,” Deke said and strolled out of the gym whistling. “You know he’s a lot smarter than he lets on,” Grace said and hurried off. ☼ Friday morning a frosting of snow layered Pikes Peak. It took me longer than usual to wash up, brush my teeth and go for breakfast. Cal sat at the table picking at a bowl of oatmeal. He shovelled a heap into his mouth then opened it to show me the disgusting lump. Normally it would have gotten a rise out of me but the thought of fighting Ray occupied my mind. On the way to school the red bluffs stood out like giant gumdrops against a pure blue sky. I kept looking up, not a cloud in sight, so much for hoping for rain. At lunch I stared at my sandwich, pushed it to the side and rolled my apple back and forth without picking it up. I glanced at Ray sitting at the next table. He’d removed the top slice of bread from his peanut butter and jelly sandwich then placed it back on top and rewrapped the sandwich in its wax paper. We returned our food to our brown paper sacks and both started toward the garbage can. As I passed through the cafeteria doors I saw Deke fish the sacks from the trash. He found an empty table and spread the feast in front of him. Back in class Mrs. Butterfield asked, “Ray do you know whom Pikes Peak was named after?” He shook his head and shrugged indifferently. When she asked me I said, “Mr. Pike.” “Very funny, Ernie. What was Mr. Pike’s full name? And please don’t tell me Peak.” Before we moved from Detroit I’d read every history book I could find on Colorado. The name Zebulon Pike hung on my tongue but would not come out of my mouth. Deke raised his arms above his head and waved them like a signalman on an air craft carrier. “Deke, do you know the answer?” A stunned look froze Mrs. Butterfield’s face. “No Mam, but I know he never made it to the top.” Mrs. Butterfield arched her unibrow breaking it off over the bridge of her nose. “Is that so?” “It’s a fact Mam. My great grandma, was full-blooded Ute, and knew a really old lady who was along with the expedition he led before he got took by the Spaniards.” “And?” “And he never got to the top.” “Is that all?” “Yes Mam, I guess so except for the Utes named it Ta-Wa-Ah-Gath. It means Sun Mountain. It was wrong to give the mountain his name when it already had one.” “Well that’s what the history book calls it so we’ll call it that.” Mrs. Butterfield turned her back on the class and wiped off the blackboard. “Your history, not mine,” Deke muttered. Ray lifted his head and gave Deke a nod. The clang of a bell announced the end of the school week and any chance of a reprieve. Ray and his crew walked down the hallway and into the bathroom. Ray carried an overstuffed backpack. I guessed he had his old clothes in it. He’d arrived at school dressed in a crisp baby blue button down shirt and slick black slacks. I wished that I had thought about bringing my old clothes as well instead of wearing them. I rushed out of the classroom and over to the vacant lot, outracing the gaggle of students who showed up for every fight. I sat on a rusted bucket, exhaling butterflies. Scraps of metal, a twisted lawn chair, a shadeless freestanding lamp, and a Radio Flyer wagon lacking its rear wheels littered the lot. I thought, “What’s so bad about running away?” Then I remembered that if I didn’t fight, I’d spend the rest of elementary school being called Ern Sample the Chicken. There is nothing worse than being called a chicken, except maybe losing a tooth, getting a broken nose, or black eye. What was taking Ray so long? Perhaps he’d decided to postpone it again and forgot to tell me. After all, it could really ruin the weekend getting all dirty and beat up, especially if your parents had warned you against fighting. “Hey goober, ready for a beating?” Horace Menken’s taunt erased any hope I held for another reprieve. “Yeah, a real thumping.” Freddy Wilkenson’s gibe lacked energy or imagination. A string of kids including Deke and Grace followed Menken and Wilkenson, the joined at the lip clowns. At the end of the procession Ray walked a great deal slower than the crowd. He entered the arena formed by the circle of kids. “Hey look at ass bucket.” Menken pointed at me. “Bet he took a dump in it before we came 'cause he was scared shitless.” I charged Menken stopping just short of him and jabbed my fist a few inches short of his nose. He shuddered and threw his hands up to cover his face. “Made you flinch,” I said and exercising an unwritten cultural prerogative punched him in the arm. Ray’s shoulders rose and fell. “You’re here for me not him.” He spoke in a raspy voice. “I know that but he’s a jerk.” “Yeah he is,” Ray said. Ray took of his jacket. Someone started humming Chopin’s funeral march. His eyes traveled from my worn out Hushpuppies to my long sleeve Charlie Brown T-Shirt. Is your mother going to get mad if you mess up those clothes?” “Probably,” I said.” “Quit yabbering and fight,” Menken said. My Adams apple felt like a peach pit stuck in my throat. I backed off a few feet and raised my fists. Ray licked his lips. “You take the first punch,” Ray said. “No, you take the first.” Deke stepped forward and shoved us into one another. Ray’s fist grazed my teeth. My elbow caught Ray under his eye as we collided and fell to the ground. When we stood up Deke stepped between us. “That’s it. Fight’s over.” “What do you mean the fight’s over?” Menken protested. “How could it be over when it never got started?” Freddy asked. Grace grabbed my hand and led me back to the bucket. She dabbed my mouth with a tissue and held it up so everyone could see the splotch of blood from where Ray’s fist had cut my upper lip. Deke lightly touched the bird sized egg growing under Ray’s eye. “It’s a tie, a draw,” he said. “It can’t be. Nobody took a swing,” Freddy complained. Ray marched over to his jacket and picked it up. I told Ray, “I’m okay with it if you are.” “Sure Ern Sample, I’m okay with it.” “Don’t call me that.” “I’ll call you what I want.” Deke shook his head and pulled me back from Ray. “You two guys are like a couple of Chihuahuas fighting over a dinosaur bone. You’re gonna choke to death on it before you realize it’s just too big eat. Now if you really want to go at it, do it. But I’m telling you right now whoever wins is gonna have to fight me next.” “And whoever loses is going to have fight me,” Grace said. Ray sighed and stuck out his hand. “Okay, Mark?” We shook. Ray turned to Deke and asked, “What do you want to be called?” Deke shrugged. “You don’t talk to me enough for it to matter what you call me.” Grace walked up to Deke and put her hand on his shoulder. “All of you better call him Deke or Deacon because if I ever hear you call him Deke the Geek, I’ll thump you and you know I can do it.” The kids who’d gathered expecting a real fight grumbled as they trickled away. Ray glanced over his shoulder and asked, “Anyone want to come to my place and play tether ball?” “Come on Mark,” Grace said. After we got to the top of the hill that rose above the vacant lot I realized that Deke was not with us. I turned around and saw him collecting scraps of metal, pop bottles and the old lamp. He placed them in the broken wagon and dragged it behind him. ☼ The days grew longer; the sandstone and clay bluffs surrounding the neighborhood became as red as a blood moon. Each minute on the class clock felt like a hour. Dandelions, buttercups and cockle burrs sprouted through fissures in rocks and between cracks in the sidewalk. One afternoon Mrs. Butterfield put a fish bowl in the center of her desk. Scraps of folded paper filled the bowl. She pressed a piece of chalk on the blackboard. It screeched and broke on the down stroke. She started over and wrote 1 = Wildflowers of Colorado, underneath that, 2 = Fossil Discoveries, 3= History of Mining in Leadville. In total she wrote twelve numbers and corresponding science projects on the board. Without missing a beat she pivoted on one foot and nailed Menken in the center of his forehead with the stick of chalk before he could fire a spit wad at Deke who had fallen asleep at his desk. “Eyes in the back of my head, eyes in the back of my head, Master Menken,” she said. Deke awoke, stretched his arms over his head and smacked his lips. “Deacon, would you mind staying awake at least until recess?” Mrs. Butterfield said. “Sure thing.” “Class, buck up and stop giggling! Miss Gonzales please take the bowl and have every student draw a slip of paper.” I had to give credit to Mrs. Butterfield, a gorilla could burst into her class and start flinging desks out the window and it wouldn’t distract her from passing out homework. Grace stopped at my desk I stuck my hand in the bowl. “What did you draw Ernie?” Mrs. Butterfield asked. Give me a break, I ranted inside my head then said, “Wildflowers.” Mrs. Butterfield turned to the chalkboard and wrote Ernie next to #1= Wildflowers. “Butterbutt,” I mumbled. Consumed with jealousy I watched my classmates draw neat projects like building a volcano, or fossils discovered in Dinosaur National Monument. Maybe I could persuade someone to trade assignments with me. Who was I kidding? Wildflowers, who cares about wildflowers? Deke was the last person to pull an assignment. He jumped up and waved his slip at me. “Hey Mark, look we’re on the same team.” Great, not only did I have to do a project on wildflowers I had to do it with a guy I wasn’t even sure knew the difference between a pumpkin and a banana. ☼ After school Deke led me away from the housing construction sites. We walked for thirty minutes and came upon an arroyo carved out of the hard red clay and sandstone by centuries of flash floods. “Look there,” Deke pointed at a scraggly bush sprouting wildly out of the hard scrabble earth. Thin stalks of the plant, weighed down with bluish white flowers, almost touched the ground. “Amosonia Tomentosa.” “Huh?” Deke rushed down into the culvert and snapped of a branch that had a dozen star shaped flowers growing on it. “Amosonia Tomentosa,” he repeated. “I don’t speak Spanish,” I said. “It ain’t Spanish; it’s Latin. In American it’s called…,” he paused and squeezed his eyes shut until the name came to mind. “Blues Star, it’s called Blue Star. It likes poor soil which is good thing seeing that’s all we got around here.” “You’re making that up.” He held out the stalk to me. “No I ain’t. I read it in a book.” The thought of Deke using a book for anything besides a pillow struck me as weird. “Well I sure hope it can lead us to eleven other plants we need to find for our science project.” “It will.” Deke smiled exposing brown colored teeth separated by black spaces. “Saturday morning let’s meet at the school and go hunting for wildflowers.” There were a hundred other things I’d rather be doing on a Saturday morning. But I figured it would be better to get it over with all at once instead of hanging with him after school for the next two weeks gathering weeds. ☼ On Saturday morning I ate waffles with strawberries and whipped cream then watched cartoons before my sister claimed possession of the TV by virtue of seniority. Mom reminded me that it would be rude to keep my friend waiting. “He’s not my friend. He’s my science project partner.” Mom handed me a sack lunch and mentioned how sometimes these things develop into friendships. I stuffed the brown paper bag in my knapsack. “Maybe in your world.” Deke was perched on the top rung of the monkey bars when I arrived at school. He swung his legs forward, sailed into the air and landed on his feet. I looked at his decrepit Radio Flyer wagon. It held a few rolled up newspapers, five or six soda bottles and some coils of copper wiring. “I get up real early to deliver papers. Sometimes I roust the rooster,” he said. I guess I was supposed to laugh at this but I had no clue on how early you had to rise to wake a chicken. I slipped off my knapsack and took an apple from my lunch bag. Deke turned his head away when he noticed I saw him staring at the apple. I had another one in the sack and offered it to him. He arched his back and patted his distended stomach. “Naw, I et a big breakfast this morning.” “Me too, I had waffles and strawberries with whipped cream.” “Et those things once. Not altogether mind you but I guess they’re pretty tasty as a mix.” I hurled my half eaten apple at a chipmunk that scampered by. Deke’s face went dark as he watched the apple arch over the chipmunk and roll through the dirt. For a moment I thought he was going to run after it. Instead he grabbed the handle of the wagon and dragged it behind a metal dumpster. “Deke, who do you think is going to steal that thing?” “Probably the same people who stoled the front wheels. Fixed it up once already. Put on some wheels I took off an old baby carriage but somebody ripped ‘em off and bent the front axle so it don’t take no more wheels.” “Why don’t you just buy a new one?” He hid his rising anger behind a smile. “You think I’d be pulling this thing if I had the money to get another one?” I felt a tightness in my chest as Deke’s words sunk in. “My little bother has an old wagon he never uses if you want it,” I said. Deke took off his cap and stared inside it a moment. “Nah, long as it holds the papers for my route it’ll do the job.” He walked off, taking long strides that forced me to jog to keep up with him. He slowed down we reached a ridge of rolling bluffs that rose out of the flat plain. He pointed at a bush growing about twenty-feet up the side of the bluff. With its wispy pink and maroon flowers it resembled cotton candy. “Geum Triflorum,” Deke said and climbed up the side of the hill. He unfolded a jack knife’s rusty blade, cut off a flowery branch and tossed it to me. He fished a stub of a pencil from his shirt pocket and ran it over a stone until it had a point. “Got a notepad in your backpack?” he asked. “No just my lunch.” “That’ll do,” he said and handed me the pencil. “Put this sprig in your pack and write down Geum Triflorum on your lunch bag,” “Huh?” “Geum Triflorum, folks around here call it Prairie Smoke.” We climbed the bluff, squeezing our bodies between rocks and crevices. Later we backtracked to the arroyo where earlier he’d shown me the Blue Star. We followed it all the way down to a wide ditch that Deke claimed was a dried out river bed. By three o’clock my heels were blistered and my hands raw from stuffing prickly branches of different kinds of wildflowers into my knapsack. It was at this point that I insisted we stop for lunch. I took a tuna sandwich out of the lunch bag on which the Latin and common names of the plants we’d gathered were written. Deke sat down on the ground cross-legged. I lifted the top slice of the sandwich bread and sniffed the tuna. As though reading my mind Deke hopped to his feet before I could toss my sandwich into the undergrowth. He snatched it out my hand and bit into it while asking at the same time, “Mind if I eat it if you ain’t hungry?” I shrugged and unclipped a canteen of Kool-Aid from my belt. After taking a long drink I handed it to Deke. He drained the contents in a couple of gulps. “Still got that other apple?” He flipped open his pocket knife and ran both sides of its blade on his pant leg. He cut the apple in two and gave me half. “Would you like to come over to my place one day for lunch,” he said as he chewed the apple until the core disappeared. “Maybe one day,” I answered. “When?” “When what?” “When can you come over?” “I don’t know, someday.” “Maybe you can come to my place and look at my book and we can write up the project.” “Or you can bring your book to my house, Deke.” He shook his head. “Nah, that ain’t such a good idea. I don’t like carrying my book outside. No telling what’s liable to happen to it on the way to where I’m going.” ☼ Deke didn’t show up for school the next week. Mrs. Butterfield asked to see how far along everyone had gotten on their assignments. When she called on me I said that I was writing up the report and Deke was drying out the flowers we’d gathered. It was only then that she looked to the back corner of the classroom where Deke generally sat staring out the window. “Oh yes I forgot, Deacon is your partner. You have a dual responsibility to make certain the report is submitted on time.” At lunch Menken snuck up behind me and slapped me on the back as I bit into my sandwich. “ “Hee-haw Ern sample, where’s your cootie head friend?” I spat out a mushy piece of bread stuck in my throat. It landed on the toe of Menken’s shoes. “Don’t call me that.” Menken’s face turned red then yellow. “Quick give me something to wipe it off.” Though tempted to tell him to use his tongue I handed him a napkin. He gagged when he stooped over and swiped away the gooey mess. It left a wet circle on the toe of his loafer. Menken started to toss the napkin on the floor. “Didn’t your mother teach it’s wrong to litter?” Ray asked when he walked over to us. Menken carefully stuffed the napkin in his pant pocket. “Have you heard from Deke?” Ray asked. “I don’t know how to get in touch with him. Do you know his telephone number?” “You’re kidding.” “Why would I be kidding? I need to see how far along he is on our project.” The truth, I’d not done anything since I last saw Deke. I’d counted on him bringing in his book on wildflowers. All we’d need to do was to paste each dried flower in an art pad and copy a little something about it from his book. “Well you know Deke,” I said. “He’s not really that on top of things.” I hadn’t noticed Grace behind me until she pinched me. “That’s not true. If Deke says he’s going to do something he does it unless something is wrong.” “She’s right. Deke might be a squirrel,” Ray began to say. Menken interrupted him. “Yeah a skinny, big-eared cootie head squirrel.” Ray slapped the pocket where Menken had stored the napkin. Menken cupped his hand over his mouth and swallowed whatever was rising in his throat when the napkin squirted out the mess. It left a slimy wet spot on his pants to match the one on his shoe. “Deke never breaks a promise,” Ray said. “Okay, I’ll phone him.” “Deke doesn’t have a telephone. If you want to talk to him you’ll have to go see him,” Grace said. “How am I supposed to find him? I don’t even know his address.” “He doesn’t have one.” “Have what?” “An address.” “Unless you call Cootie Street in Shanty Town an address,” Menken blurted out. “Freddy knows where he lives. He went there once with his father to drop off a necessity hamper from the church..” Grace said “His family is so poor that they wipe their butts with newspapers,” Menken said. “Shut up.” Grace punched him in the shoulder. Ray pretended to sniff the air around Menken. “At least he wipes ass which is more than I can say for you.” ☼ After school we sought out Freddy. No matter how many times we asked him take us to Deke’s house he shook his head. Freddy pulled his freckled ear and said, “I can’t. It wouldn’t be right going there unless Deke invited us.” Freddy’s reluctance to take us just made us more determined to get him to show the way. “Grace, how’d you like it if I peeked through your bathroom window and saw you naked?” Freddy asked. Grace raised her balled up fists under Freddy’s nose. “Keep talking like that and you’ll find out.” “I’m serious. If Deke wanted you to go to his place he’d of invited you.” A report card with a big fat F floated in my mind. “Come on Freddy, he’s my science project partner. He’s my friend. You’ve seen me share my lunch with him.” True Deke had shared my lunch on several occasions. He’d fished it out along with other kid’s half eaten sandwiches, bruised apples and barely gnawed carrot sticks from the lunchroom’s garbage can when he thought no one was looking. Freddy sighed and told me he’d take me to Deke’s place on Saturday morning. Ray and Grace said they’d come along as well. Menken did his hee-haw laugh. “Count me in. I always wanted to see where that goober lives. I bet ya it’s a real dump. I bet ya he has pigs and chickens.” After the others had left Ray asked me, “Do you think we should bring something?” “Like what?” “I don’t know, something. Yesterday I saw him behind the school sorting through the cafeteria dumpster.” “What was he looking for?” Ray whispered, “What do you think?”
☼ A blast of Artic air stole spring from us while we slept. I had ignored my mother’s warning about not wearing my winter coat. I didn’t want to look like a wimp when I arrived at the playground. Except for Menken and me everyone was dressed in warm jackets. Menken, rain or shine, snow or dust storm, always wore a brown bomber’s jacket with a tiger on the back. A smile crept across his face exposing his enormous front teeth. “What’s a matter Ernie, cold or something?” I closed my fists digging my fingernails into my palms to take my mind off the chill. “No, just out of breath. I ran all the way here.” Menken unzipped his jacket and patted a thermos bottle stuffed in his waistband. “Hot chocolate. It keeps you warm on the outside and the inside.” He prattled on about how “Nestles Makes the Very Best Chocolate and Campfire Marshmallows melt up real sticky” “Do you ever stop talking long enough to come up for air?” Ray asked when he joined us. Menken puffed out his chest. “I got real good lungs.” Soon afterward Freddy and Grace appeared. Freddy kicked a rock toward Grace. She trapped it with her toe and gave it a boot rocketing it over his head. Normally he would have retaliated and tried to match her. He raised his shoulders and let out long sigh before speaking. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea.” “Sure it is. It will be a hoot to sneak up on Deke the Geek. I always wanted to know what kind of rat hole he lives in.” “Is that why you want go, to make fun of him?” Grace said. “Well count me out. Deke is a nice boy.” Ray nodded. “She’s right if the only reason we’re going is to get a laugh at his expense it’s a pretty crummy reason.” “Ah come on guys I was just joking. I just wanna see Deke the…” Two sharp knuckle punches, delivered from opposite sides, paralyzed Menkens’ arms. He fell to his knees and cried, “No fair. You didn’t give me a heads up.” “We did when we agreed to quit calling him that,” Ray said. I glanced at my wristwatch. We had wasted more than an hour and I had to get home to help Cal clean the garage. My dad had promised that when he returned from his inspection trip to Canada that I would not be able to sit down for a week if it wasn’t done to his satisfaction. “Come on Freddy just show me how to get there. I have to get the stuff from him to complete our wildflower project.. If you guys don’t want to come to see Deke, fine.” Menken rose to his feet, tears escaped his eyes despite his trying to hold them back. “You can all go to H-E-L-L!” he shouted and ran off. “Let’s get started,” Ray said. We walked along a newly paved road for awhile then stopped when Freddy veered off the asphalt and headed down a path, barely visible under the frost covered clumps of earth pushed up by bulldozers clearing more land for more houses that resembled every other house in the Paradise Valley subdivision. Thin layers of ice went off like firecrackers underfoot as we followed Freddy. We scrambled up an embankment, side stepping chunks of broken rocks, thorny bushes, discarded automobile parts and metal so rusted and twisted that the debris bore no resemblance to anything I could imagine. “Down there,” Freddy said when we topped the ridge. He pointed at a shack standing on a barren slice of land. The shack was little more than a collection of unfinished boards, tarpaper and strips of metal. It leaned to one side and would have fallen down if not for three railroad ties bracing it. The roof, fashioned out of a piece of fiber glass awning, had a blue tarpaulin rising above it. Spotty swatches of weeds in the cracked earth yard surroundied the dwelling. An old pick up truck minus its chassis occupied a place of prominence next to Deke’s wagon. A pillow and several tattered blankets were inside the cab. An oil drum singed black from countless fires overflowed with scraps of wood and cardboard. An rusty oven rack leaned against the drum. Beyond it a fence made of chicken wire strung between stakes hammered into the hard dirt enclosed an impoverished vegetable garden. The door of the shack opened and Deke stepped outside. He walked over to the blackened barrel and poured something from a mason jar on the debris, set the oven rack on the barrel and tossed in a lit match. The pile of sticks, papers and other trash burst into flames. He held his hand in front of the fire rubbing them together before going back inside the shack. He returned carrying a blue speckled wash basin and set it on the grill. After several minutes passed he dipped his finger in the basin then took a bar of soap out of his jacket pocket. Deke stripped off his jacket and shirt. His bloated stomach extended beyond his concave chest. In the frigid outdoors he washed himself without shivering then quickly toweled off with a piece of a flannel blanket. Ray jabbed a finger in my arm and said, “This was your idea. Go down and see if he’s finished your stupid science project.” “I’ll wait until he goes back inside. I don’t want him to think we’ve been up here spying on him.” “Well isn’t that we’ve been doing, “Freddy said. He turned his back on us and left. ‘Wait up.” Grace hurried after him. I wanted to join them but I’d come this far and didn’t want to go back without knowing why Deke had not returned to school and more selfishly find out how close Deke was to finishing his part of our project. I shoved my hands deep into my jeans pocket then walked down the ridge to the ramshackle hut. When I reached the bottom my foot snagged a wire strung between two stakes. I fell face forward. A series of loud explosions went off around me. Deke burst out of the shack cradling a single barrel shotgun. His eyes danced over my head to the plot of dirt enclosed by a roll of chicken wire. Inside the pen, four scrawny chickens and a rooster with his faded red comb broken in the middle pecked at the ground while two rabbits huddled together in a corner. Deke leaned the shotgun against an old-fashioned water pump then helped me untangle myself from the trip wire. “We used to have a goat but she busted out and Daddy couldn’t find her. Either she got kilt by a bulldozer in the development or et up by a coyote.” He stooped and pulled out a few rods from the ground. Attached to the wire were the remnants of giant firecrackers. “Good thing you tripped over this here line,” Deke said and pocketed the spent crackers. He pointed at the crude chicken wire enclosure. “The trap over there is loaded with real shot.” “Huh?” The ringing in my ears from the explosions muffled my hearing. “Coyote bangers,” he said. “Guess you don’t have much use for them in the development.” Ray walked down the hill and joined us. “Deke, why haven’t you been at school?” He asked before bothering to say hello. “Got my reasons.” “Your old man’s not been around either.” “He’s got his reasons too.” I broke the hard silence separating them. “Deke, our project on wildflowers is due soon. If we don’t hand in by next week we’ll get an F.” Deke shuddered as he suppressed a laugh. “Shoot, I got that covered. I snagged a poster board from school. They was gonna throw it out because it was a little smudged but it ain’t noticeable with the flowers and notes stuck to it. But I don’t see how I can make it back to school for awhile.” Ray nudged me aside. “When your daddy gets back from Denver tell him my father has some work for him.” Deke tucked his chin to his neck and pawed the dirt with his shoe. “You know about Denver?” “My mother heard about it from the band council.” “Know my pop well enough to say he’ll say no to your dad. Come on inside and I’ll make us lunch.” “Can’t today,” Ray said. He placed his palm on my chest and pointed at Deke’s shack. “Least you can do is have lunch with him. Might not seem much to you but it’s more than he can offer.” Deke picked up an empty jerry can next to the water pump. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed the inside before shaking out a few remaining drops of water. “Fill it up and I’ll make the sandwiches.” I inspected the pump searching for a switch or tap to turn it on. Deke chuckled and placed the can under the battered spout of the pump. He lifted the handle and moved it up and down until murky water sluiced out of the spout and into the can. “Lucky I managed to reprime this thing. I’ve been walking down to the filling station to get water until I got it working.” “You don’t have running water?” “Sure I do, it just takes awhile to convince it to run up from the well. Got a toilet too out behind the house but I try to hold my business until I go to the store to return pop bottles or school when I’m able to get away.” Deke jumped back when water splashed over his shoes. From behind us Ray shouted, “ Changed my mind. How about that sandwich.” Deke opened the plywood door of his shack with a flourish as if inviting guests into a South Hampton mansion. A bare light bulb suspended from a frayed cloth cord, strangled by black electrical tape, dangled in the center of the shed. Along the walls make shift shelves of various cast off boards served as a pantry. On one shelf were cans labeled government surplus, candles, matches, sacks of dried beans and jam jars filled with salt, sugar and unidentified spices. The shelf sagged over a long table supporting a naphtha stove and battered pots and chipped plates and mugs. Pinned to one wall a bleached out photograph of an older of Deke along with an equally worn out black haired woman were the only non-essentials in the shack. Standing between the man and woman a young girl and shorter but still zipper thin Deke stared expressionless into the camera. A solitary kerosene lantern hung from a hook. A curtain fashioned from a green drop cloth separated the bare wood parlor from what passed as a private sleeping quarter. In the center of the room a salvaged door supported between two crude sawhorses served as a dining table. Under it were rolled up foam mattresses and yellow mice eaten sheets and blankets. An ancient steamer trunk, its lid long since gone, contained a shabby collection of clothing as colorless and genderless as its surroundings. Three web folding lawn chairs were neatly tucked into one corner of the shed. Deke flipped them open with a practiced dexterity and placed them at the table. He went to the larder and took down a round tin labeled G.I. potted meat and another can labeled fruit salad. He lifted one of the pots, which was placed rim down on the counter and removed a bag of Wonder Bread. The red and blue balloons on the bag added a bit of color to the shack. “Got mustard and ketchup if you want but no mayonnaise. Won’t keep until it gets a colder outside.” He punched the potted meat tin with a the blade of a can opener and worked it around until he managed to peel back the metal enough to allow him to empty its contents into the blue and white speckled bowl. The pasty beige lump smelled like dog food that had been left out overnight. He took down some salt and pepper from the pantry shelf along with a jar of sweet relish and spooned them into the bowl, mixed them with a fork turning the already unappetizing mess into something worse. He slapped three slices of bread on the door table and spread the concoction on the bread then handed Ray and me a slice of bread. “Mustard and ketchup on the shelf if you want. I’d have toasted the bread but dont’ have enough fuel to waste it on lunch,’ he said and took a bite of his sandwich. I held the floppy square of white bread in my hand a moment before pressing it down on the potted meat to hide the unappealing green and beige slime. Ray took a bite of his sandwich followed immediately by a slug of water. My sandwich remained untouched. “Take a bite,” Ray said and pushed my sandwich into my face then ran outside. I wiped the canned meat and bread from my face and chased him into the yard. His knee cracked my lips when I dove at his legs. I tasted blood as he toppled backward. Hooking my legs around his waste I trapped him and started hitting him in the side of his head with fast short punches. I cocked my arm to deliver a telling blow to his eye. Deke grabbed me and dragged me away from Ray. “Quit acting like idiots, you’re upsetting the hens.” Ray got off the ground and wiped a streak of dirt from his face. “Why are you trying to be his friend? Don’t you know he thinks you’re just a stupid dirty Indian?” “I don’t think anything of the kind. I didn’t even know you’re Indian.” Deke pushed me away and said, “I might play stupid Ray but at least I don’t tip-toe down the center of the line.” “My dad’s right you’re nothing but dirt poor trash. You give us a bad name.” “Can’t argue with that. I’m the son of a full-blooded Ute mother and half Pueblo full drunk father. But you ain’t even an apple. At least an apple pretends to be red on the outside while being lily white on the inside. You go around bragging about your Indian heritage when it suits you or holding up your white man father’s pedigree when it gets you into the dance. You’d even play the old Spanish settlers ancestor card if it worked to your favor. ” Raymond charged Deke but retreated when Deke picked up a stick. “I could have beat you and your buddies butts anytime I wanted to Ray. But I didn’t. You know why? Cause it wouldn’t change a thing. Cause nothing ever changes. Except the pain. It just grows until you don’t ever remember living without it.” Ray’s shoulders went slack. “When your dad gets back from Denver tell him my father has work for him. Tell him we’re praying for your sister.” Deke dropped the stick. He swallowed a sob. “Come back inside, got canned fruit salad for dessert.” ☼ Deke’s poster board of desiccated wildflowers and monk like calligraphy next to each flower detailing its proprieties impressed Mrs. Butterfield. She called it a project far beyond what she expected. I received an A-, Deke a zero. Although I tried to give wishy-washy credit to Deke for the project Mrs. Butterfield adamantly refused to grant him any contribution other than as part Indian he knew something about vegetation around these parts. She insisted it did not exclude him from skipping three weeks of class or participating in the oral presentation. I breathed a sigh of relief, mostly expiation of guilt, when Grace and Carl, the brain, Shenker won the Thomas Alva Edison Elementary School award for best research project. They went on to place third in the state competition of Colorado Land of Mountains, Mystery and History. When Deke finally showed up the smile he always wore had been replaced with a straight lipless line. He barely acknowledged anyone in class and made his way to his desk in the far corner of the room next to a window. Ray stood up and whispered something in his ear. Deke shuddered from his shoulders to his feet. “It’s done,” he said in a voice so laced with sadness that it eclipsed whatever sunshine passed through the window. “Ma’s called it quits and Pa, well Pa made that call a long time ago.” Later that afternoon two men dressed in khaki shirts, blue jeans and straw cowboy hats entered the classroom. They spoke to Mrs. Butterfield. She pointed at Deke. His face pressed against the glass left an impression of his lips, eyes and nose when he broke off to look at them. The darker of the two men handed Deke a leather pouch embroidered with beads. The men walked away stopping briefly to look at Ray. Deke remained in class at recess. He balled up his fists and struck at an invisible enemy in front of him. Ray placed his hand on Deke’s shoulder but was shunted aside. I stood uncomfortably between the doorframes, an unwanted observer to something beyond my scope of understanding. He held the leather pouch out to Ray. “She didn’t do nothing to deserve this.” The words remained well after he’d said them like a spider web floating in still air. “It’s too small to hold her spirit.” He stood up and headed for the door, pushing me aside. Ray followed him down the hallway. As Deke passed Mrs. Butterfield in the playground he paused when she asked, “Where do you think you’re going young man?” “Ageseris Aurantiaca,” he said. Mrs. Butterfield gasped as though someone had spat in her face. “I beg your pardon.” “Commonly called mountain dandelion, rusty orange with bright yellow interior.” “Just because you are going through difficult times doesn’t excuse this behavior.” Deke’s voice rose into a hollow somber chant. “ Machaeron, generally found at higher elevations. Common name, Colorado Tansy Aster, spatula shaped leafs, flowers pink rose and purple.” “I’m truly sorry about your sister but as your parents are not around you must not leave the school grounds until the authorities come for you.” “Amonsonia Tomentosa” The wind swirled Deke’s chant around the schoolyard like a dust devil. “It was her favorite. It was her name, Blue Star. Thrives in semi-desert, sandy gravel soil. Abundant clusters of straw like stalks moving like living tumble weeds, dozens of mauve tinted white star flowers that weigh down the fragile stalks.” Mrs. Butterfield bowed her head. “Deacon please…” “Thank you, Mam, but I gotta go. If you want know more about Colorado Wildflowers ask Mark, Ernie, to bring by my book.” He held up the pouch. “My Blue Star used to like me to read it to her and show her the pictures. Got no use for it now.”