The following is an excerpt from “Frying Spam and Other Things to do Before The Rapture” a memoir in progress.
One day my brother Simmy and I were playing out back. We were sitting on the bank. In red. We were wearing brand new matching red jackets and red hats with the word BASEBALL printed on a patch that was supposed to look like a baseball. Mom got our outfits at the Farmers Market. She couldn’t resist. They were on sale and they had both sizes. Even though Mom knew nothing about baseball, she thought anything having to do with it was for boys.
Out back was in the back of the parsonage that was in the back of the church. There was a hill that we thought then was really big. There was a dogwood tree too small to climb, a pine tree too sticky to climb, and a Mulberry tree that made red spots on my pants. And there was Inky, chained up, barking, sitting in his circle of poop by the fence that Dad built with roofing tin. On the other side of the tin fence was the steep bank that Dad hated to mow, a bank of weeds overlooking Valley Road and the steel plant.
In summer, we’d sit on top of the bank, lean against the tin fence, look over at Lukens’ Steel, and watch cars whiz up the road. Once a day, Mr. Softy parked over there. Every day Mr. Softy had to take a pee, I saw it running under the truck in the middle of the guy’s feet. Carol Ann saw it too and that’s why we weren’t allowed to get a cone from Mr. Softy . “He’s got no way to wash after touching his thing,” Mom said. “Even if there was, he’s colored, how can you tell if their hands are clean?”
So there we were in red, sitting up on the bank. I picked a rock from between my legs. I bet my brother I could hit the Lukens fence across the road. I bet him a Mary Jane he couldn’t. I knew he couldn’t. He was a wuss and a faker. He cried everywhere about everything. About haircuts, toys, mud, the bathtub, shirts, and SPAM. He cried at the Downingtown Farmers Market. He cried in line for Dilly Bars at the Dairy Queen. He cried on the steps of the First National Bank of Coatesville. If it was even a bit sunny, he’d stand on Main Street on the bank steps, cover his eyes and whine, “I can’t see, I can’t see. Help me, help me, Mommy, I’m going blind.” But that was only when Mom or Carol was around.
I wound my arm up like a Phillies pitcher. “Come on,” I hollered. Most of our stones made it all the way across the road to the fence. Past the fence where Mr. Softy took a pee, was the Lukens Steel parking lot, off limits and against the law. Every eight hours, hundreds of dirty men, swinging their empty black lunch pails, walked slowly to their cars, jiggled their keys in their car doors, and glanced back at the smoke and the long gray buildings. Some men shouted things to other men. Some sat in their cars with the doors open and waited until their cigarettes got going good, then they drove slowly toward the gate. Soon the lot was filled with other cars and other men swinging full lunch boxes.
I peered down at this every day from my bedroom window in the attic. I drew the steel mills and cars and men more than once, sitting at my desk made of orange crates. Sometimes I crawled out my window to the roof for a better look until my sister found me and screamed and everyone came running. From up on the roof the men looked like ants, their cars like toys. Even then it seemed they had a terrible job, always hot and dirty and sad.
After an hour or so of throwing rocks, Simmy and I were getting pretty good at hitting the fence on the other side. Then, just as I wound up for a pitch, a shiny green dump truck screeched to a halt. The brake lights glowed a bright red. He’d seen us. I panicked. I panicked like when my tongue got stuck to an ice cube tray or when my thing down there got caught in my zipper. Panic made my feet take off without me, which is what happened. And there was Simmy, coming after me as fast as he could. If I hadn’t run, he’d have probably stood there until someone found him, hours later.
Over Dad’s tin fence we jumped, up the hill, under the mulberry trees, through Inky’s poop, past the trash cans, over the lawn mower, and up the back porch steps. In the kitchen, Mom was singing, making lunch. Fried SPAM. Again. It smelled better than usual. Fried SPAM sandwiches and strawberry Quik to wash it all down. “Eat it. Don’t think you’re gettin’ up ‘til you swallowed every bite and crumb,” Mom said, at least three times. “And no saving any for Jesus.”
I swallowed my sandwich in chunks. My stomach hurt. I was thinking about the green truck, thinking about the brake lights, that screeching sound, the awful screeching of the brakes and tires. For once, I was happy I lived in back of the church. Only people in the church knew anyone at all lived there. The truck driver would never find us, sitting in our kitchen with our SPAM sandwiches. But God told people things. God had told Mom things before. Maybe God would tell him.
“Be sure your sins will find you out,” Dad would say.
Why was Simmy crying? He was gonna tell, I knew it.
“Mom?” I said. “Simmy saw a snake up in the alley. Right, Simmy? Simmy?”
A loud knock came at the door. It was a terrible sound. Dad yelled for Mom to get it. “Missus?” the man said, “You got two little boys here wearin’ baseball hats ? Red ones? Huh?” His voice was loud. It was scary. And mean. “Charles?” Mom called. Then they were all talking. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying except for the words Reverend, sorry, windshield, 300 dollars, check, mail, and punish. The door slammed. Dad yelled toward the kitchen.