"Introducing Pecan Groves, Texas. Oh, the mischief that transpires in that sleepy little town!"
Perhaps I should start this story with one of those long-winded disclaimers versed with legalese that indemnifies everyone involved with this affair from the beginning of time to the end. I don't know. I've never written a story like this, before. Really, except for the occasional public school dissertation, I've never written any kind of story, at all. In fact, I probably wouldn't write this one, either, except the whole affair seemed very… strange and… scary. Plus, of course, a big city newspaper has promised to pay me more money than I need to write it, so here it is. At the least I should tell you that none of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, because they were all innocent, as far as I'm concerned, and that would force me to have to, first, come up with all sorts of strange names for the players, and, second, I would have to remember them all. The events I relate within this tale are all factual to the best of my knowledge. This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Halloween that year fell on a Friday. Inasmuch as tricks are trickier and treats are treatier with the promise of a long, lazy weekend lying just ahead, it promised to be an exceptional celebration. I was of an age too old to trick-or-treat and, at the same time, too young to forego the fun altogether, so me and my crew of pimple-faced, knock-kneed rabble rousers had spent a month or more planning all the pranks we intended to play that day.
By my crew, I refer to the guys and gals I had grown up with over on Whiskey Street. It was a street aptly named back in the day, perhaps, because Pecan Groves, Texas, or the 'Groves, as we called it, was one of the older villages in that state. Its inception, I'm told, dated back to the days of conquistadors and naked savages. Oh, it wasn't called Pecan Groves back then, no sir, it had a much longer, much older name given it by the local native Americans, so long assimilated into the stagnant culture of this brave new world we call the United States. Still, Whiskey Street probably fit well back then, when the 'Groves was wild as the west Texas wind and more dangerous than a diamond-back rattler to those unlucky souls who founded it.
Back to the subject of my crew (you will, I know, forgive me if I ramble from time to time in the relating of this tale, once you hear what happened to me); representing as we felt we did the future of the 'Groves, each of us tried very hard to be the sort of unforgettable character that might be worthy of a tale like this, despite the fact that we never could have anticipated its circumstances or conclusion. First, there was me – Thomas Render Haynes, as my parents call me, or just Knothead, as the crew knows me. Few people in the 'Groves, adult or adolescent, actually know my real name, I bet, since I've been just plain old Knothead for as long as I can remember. Whenever I went to bat in the little league games we played in the distant, murky past, it was always 'Knock 'em over the fence, Knothead!' They never shouted 'Knock 'em over the fence, Thomas Render Haynes!' Indeed, on the day we graduated from high school, thanks to some well-meaning nostalgia-intoxicated secretary-type, the principal called me to fetch my diploma with the name 'Knothead Haynes'.
Oh well, it was a moniker well deserved and well earned, right from my very first day on planet Earth. I was born with a lumpy head, you see, thanks to my mother's heaving, straining efforts to squeeze me out into this world, and, no matter how I wished it would, the old noggin never really rolled into shape as I aged. To this day, and I'm feeling it now, the lumpiness of my skull is apparent to even the most casual caress of my scalp.
Second after me, because he always tried hard to take over my leadership of our motley crew, came Peckerwood Jones. His real name was Torrance Jasper Jones, but he would punch you if you called him Torrance. He would punch you if you called him Jasper. So we called him Peckerwood. Not out of meanness, you know, but because once, in second grade, if you can imagine that, he was assigned the tortuous task of reading out the vocabulary words for the week, one of which was 'woodpecker'. Instead of coming out the right way, it came out 'peckerwood', and we all laughed so hard some of us fell out of our seats. We all knew what 'peckerwood' meant, you know, even at that tender age, and we knew it was a meaning far removed from that intended. So we laughed until we couldn't breathe, and we started calling Torrance Jasper Jones 'Peckerwood'. Anyway, he didn't mind much, since he liked that name better than either of his given names. Besides which, Peckerwood Jones has a kind of ring to it that Torrance Jasper could never enjoy.
No matter how Peckerwood and I struggled and fought over first place in everything from leadership of our crew to the decisive subject matter of who could hawk the biggest loogie over the Trinity River bridge at the center of town, everybody agreed who came next. Sarah Anne Bodnere. Ah, Sarah; she of the honeycomb hair and the verdant green eyes; Sarah of the willow-wand frame and the ever-active tongue; Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, you claimed our hearts and snatched them from our breasts so we dare not muster the courage to even speak to you until the fourth grade. We thought you a goddess, then, and some of us still think that way. I do, I know. The male members of our crew (and Becky Jane Parkinson, who we never thought of as female until she sprouted gargantuan breasts in middle school – more on that later) chided and poked each other to learn who had the guts to approach her about some social function or other of the time, and it was me, naturally, chosen leader as I was. On timorous feet and tremulous voice, I approached, cleared my throat more than necessary, and then finally squeaked the question only a genuine leader could manage the guts to squeak. She said 'yes', as you can imagine, though I heard 'no'. I never went around to ask her to dance at that social event, whatever it was (I truly can't remember the name – since I probably couldn't remember my own name at the time), and that made her so mad that she beat me up at recess the following Monday. Sarah was, in fact, the only person in that whole school who ever beat me at anything, and she beat me all the time. I'll tell you more about her later.
Next in the pecking order, so to speak, was Raz Hooty. Unfortunately for Raz, both these names are real and given to him by his parents. They sound strange in our language, I know, but they were apparently very common in the country where his mother and father were born, a country that ceased to exist shortly after his folks immigrated to America. Some folks born with such a strange name compensate by kicking ass, like Peckerwood, while others redress the sore subject matter by being funny. Raz chose the latter way. He memorized every joke he ever heard, and told them well anytime one of the rednecks took to picking on him because of his dark skin and strange name. By the time he finished with them, he left them rolling on the ground laughing, much in the same way Peckerwood might have left them rolling and hugging their guts after he kicked hell out of them. Raz could impersonate any funny man on television, right down to their characteristic animations and tone of voice. His specialty was a rendition of Jim Carrey's 'Thalidomide Elvis'. Any time one of the crew needed a soul-elevation, Raz would appear in a baggy t-shirt, his knees gone wobbly and his arms tucked into the sleeves, singing, 'Ah, one fo' tha money… two fo' tha show… thah-ree to git ready, now go, cat, go,' and all thoughts of loneliness or depression were gone with a final tear and belly-deep laugh.
Which sort of leads me into the introduction of the next cast members of our little crew. Brothers Rod and Nod Belsen had been raised by their alcoholic, ne'er do well father after their mother ran off with a traveling Bible salesman (at least, that's the tale their father told – most of us thought he had shot her in the head and buried her in the 'Groves somewhere). On Friday and Saturday nights (and sometimes on every night of the week, depending on how easily he could fund his benders), Rod and Nod's father took to chasing them about the trailer they called home and beating them with anything he could get into his hands… belts, mostly, of the kind that wanna-be cowboys like to wear with the big, steel buckles and all. He also beat those boys with hair-brushes, telephone handsets, fishing rods, tree-branches, and just about anything else a man could put into his hands and fashion into a whip. Sometimes, when he felt particularly low and mean, he would simply beat them with his fists. My mother said it was 'shameful' the way that old man treated those kids, and she claimed he did it mostly because he saw their mother in them, which fueled his abject hatred of anything related to her. We, the crew I mean, always knew better. We knew he beat them simply because he was a mean son-of-a-bitch. Most nights, once they grew old enough to fend for themselves, they spent at my house or, less often, Peckerwood's place. They started working young, and often had enough money to pay their own way through life, save for room, so they weren't much of a burden. I'm proud to say the crew (and our parents, of course) helped those miserable boys grow up to be better men than their father ever could be.
And that, in turn, leads me into the introduction of the next main cast-member of our crew, Noel Garcia. Everybody knew Noel would grow up to be a Catholic priest, and by everybody, I mean his mother. She drove him in that direction relentlessly by making certain he was selected as an alter-boy and whatever else it is that good Catholic sons might be in church. For himself, Noel didn't much care about religion, as far as we could tell, but he was ever anxious to please his mother. Then, during the summer before his junior year at Pecan Groves High School, she packed him off to a six-week excursion to Mexico, where he was alleged to have served God by administering to the poor, of which there were plenty in the little village where he stayed. We never learned what happened to Noel during that trip, but he came back home a changed young man, and not changed for the better, either. He would never talk about it, but whatever he had seen or done (or had been done to him), that trip soured Noel on religion for all time. Not only would he not go to a seminary after high school, he stopped going to church, period, which just about broke his mama's heart. She scolded, pleaded, moaned, and faked heart attacks all through our junior year, anxious to cajole him back into the fold, but he never budged one inch. By the time he graduated, she had given up on him. Something in Noel had turned hard as tempered steel. He was meaner and short of temper, after he came back, and something inside him turned black and shriveled, like a piece of ripe fruit left too long in the crisper bin of a refrigerator. He rarely spoke of the Catholic church afterward, either, except to curse it so blackly that even us Protestants urged him to stop for fear that we might be struck down by the Almighty in the same lightning bolt. During the summer after our high school graduation, somebody wielding black spraypaint and a foul loathing for that religion vandalized the Catholic cathedral near downtown. The cops never figured out who had done it, but we all knew… somehow, it affected our feelings for Noel, too, because it scared us a bit. He would be the first to drift away from our circle of friends in adulthood and the last to return.