“Teddy!” Whenever my grandma called my cousin Teddy instead of his proper name, Theo, I knew something bad had happened or was about to happen. Her head was out the screen door, plump neck stretched to scan up and down Third Street, short stubby bare feet hanging partway over the door jam.
“He’s over at Jimmy Back’s!” I called back from atop my perch on the hot water tank in the front yard, which doubled as my pony in those days. Mamaw retreated back into the house, the screen slamming behind her.
Bubby Jeffries turned the corner, pedaling for our house like he did every day at this time. I could hear his slow, sleepy whistle while he was still a few houses away. Bubby was a permanent fixture on Third Street, pedaling up and down every evening between the corner stop sign and the cracked blacktop lot of the old boarded up Henry’s House of Fashion at the end of the road. He was long and lean, always had a dirty blue bandana hanging out of his back pocket and pedaled like a sloth with vertigo – so slow he teetered back and forth struggling to stay upright. His trademark was working a wad of gum over and over in his mouth even slower than his bike pedaling.
Every afternoon, when his shift changing oil and checking tires at the Grease Monkey was over, he pedaled the three blocks to our little yellow vinyl-sided house to wait for my Aunt T, Teddy’s mom, to get home from her shift at Burger Chef.
Bubby pulled up, stopping in front of the water tank. “She’s not home, Jeffries – quit sniffin’ around T and get outta here.” My uncle Alan was also out front, bent over his broken-down Camaro with a buddy, the car set up on cinder blocks like an altar right there in the front yard with metal shards and broken parts scattered around like leftovers from some kind of ritual of sacrifice. He had very little patience with the car, muttering and cursing every time the engine turned but wouldn’t start, but he had even less patience for Bubby. Mamaw must’ve heard Bubby’s name and made a second cameo appearance at the screen door. “Bubby, can you ride on over to the Back’s and ask Teddy to come home?” Bubby didn’t say anything, but let his head bob a slow nod and his front tire to start drifting around toward the Backs’ general direction.
Mamaw directed her attention to Alan. “Alan, I need you boys to cover the car and take the trash out for me right quick. The Deatons are fixin’ to come for dinner – no smokin’ out front!” The screen slammed behind her again. Uncle Alan and his buddy stretched out the faded blue painters’ tarp over the car and disappeared to the back yard with their stereo and cigarettes. Ike and Annalee Deaton came over nearly every Friday for dinner, but Mamaw always acted as if it was a special occasion. Annalee Deaton was the preacher’s sister and as such, had a direct line to his ear and Mamaw wasn’t about to let her wayward son’s smoking jeopardize her position as Sunday night song leader. She’d only recently gotten out of hot water for not having pantyhose on during the Sabbath a few Sundays ago when Annalee arrived unannounced mid-afternoon to bring by some thick slices of Virginia ham and some gossip she’d cooked up.
Within a few minutes, Teddy came into view. He was sweaty and dirt streaked like boys are after a long day of playing in the sun. I wanted to know what he and Jimmy had been doing, but I didn’t ask, puffed up because they hadn’t invited me. I slid off the hot water tank and followed Teddy inside, curious about why Mamaw wanted him home. We found her in the back bedroom Teddy shared with my Aunt T, catty corner from the room my mom and I shared. My uncle Alan slept in the third bedroom – it was so small it was more like a closet. There were no more bedrooms so Mamaw slept on the living room floor every night, on a blow up mattress we called The Diving Board.
Mamaw had the blue hard-shell suitcase out open on the bed, folding Teddy’s pajamas into it. “Teddy, your daddy called – he’s comin’ to pick you up for the night.”
“Uncle Kenny is back?” I ventured.
“He’s not your uncle anymore. You call him Mr. Kenneth. Teddy, do you want to take your long pants or your blue jean shorts?”
I wondered if Mr. Kenneth would stay for supper. My grandma always said he had a tapeworm inside of him, that sat straight up with its mouth wide open at our dinner table. I thought better of asking, remembering what happened last time Mr. Kenneth came around.
I headed back to my post at the water tank and saddled up. My aunt T was pulling in the driveway by then, windows down and long permed hair pulled back from her face in two lavender barrettes that matched her lavender striped top. I had helped Mamaw sew the tortoiseshell buttons down the front.
Bubby Jeffries reappeared at the end of the driveway.
“Hey T…how are ya?”
She barely glanced sideways. “Fine Bubby, just gettin’ home.”
“How was work?”
“Fine Bubby.” Aunt T was headed toward the front door.
“Wanna go for a ride?” Bubby motioned toward the handlebars.
“I’m a little old for bikes, and anyways, Greg’s picking me up for a movie.”
“Alrighty…” He paused to let the wad of gum take another turn around his mouth… “guess I’ll see ya tomorrow evenin’.” Aunt T rolled her eyes and walked inside. Bubby picked up his whistling right where he’d left off and started coasting down third street again.
Teddy couldn’t stay still after he heard Mr. Kenneth was coming for him. Dinner hour with the Deatons was long on any night, but it was eternal when something like seeing your daddy was about to happen. Every few minutes Teddy was at the front window or rushing to the door because he thought he saw a car like Mr. Kenneth’s.
I had that sinking feeling in my stomach, the same one I had last time Mr. Kenneth came and made Aunt T cry and Mamaw yell. I knew Mamaw was nervous too, because while Teddy ran out to the porch to check the street again, I heard her worrying to the Deatons.
“That Kenny always was odd turned. I thought we’d seen the last of him. It’s been a right smart bit since he called.”
Annalee nodded in agreement. “You know Ike’s cousin knew his daddy from back home. That whole family is touched. None of those boys ever would work and most of ‘em drank like fish. He needs the Lord.”
Mamaw headed to the window and looked through the crocheted curtains where Teddy had posted up in her rocker on the front porch, suitcase next to him watching the cars go by. She had her worried face on, the one she wore whenever we were sick or sad.
“Mamaw…is Mr. Kenneth really going to come?” I had my suspicions, especially as the sun was starting to sink behind Henry’s House of Fashion and the lightning bugs began to flash.
“I don’t know, baby doll, I don’t know.”
It was well past dark when the Deatons headed home and Aunt T got back from the movies. Teddy was still on the porch, planted in the rocking chair. She tried to get him to come inside, but he wanted to wait out front in case his daddy had forgotten what the house looked like, he could look up and see him on the porch.
The phone started ringing. Aunt T and Mamaw looked at each other, Mamaw shaking her head and clicking her tongue.
Aunt T picked up the phone. “Hello? Where the hell are you?”
“He’s been waiting out front all night, Kenny!”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“You can tell him yourself, but don’t you dare lie to him.”
Aunt T looked at me, “Tell Teddy to come inside. His daddy’s on the phone.”
I pointed behind her. Teddy had already come in and was listening. He had already started crying. Aunt T handed him the phone. “Sweetie, your dad’s having some trouble with his car. He wants to talk to you.”
After a few seconds, Teddy’s tears started to dry up and a big smile came broke out on his face. “Really, Daddy? You promise? Oh boy!” He hung up the phone and started to squeal do a jig like his body couldn’t hold in all the excitement.
“Daddy said he’s dropping off a new baseball glove for me. Says he gets paid on Friday and that when I go to sleep on Friday night, it’ll be on the porch waitin’ for me on Saturday morning. He says I’ll have the newest and best glove!”
In our house, toys of any kind, especially new ones, were a luxury saved for Christmases and birthdays, and even then you couldn’t be sure that Mamaw wouldn’t just stick to winter coats and wool socks and other things we needed for school dressed up as gifts. Even as kids, when we didn’t understand how much money was a little or a lot, we knew our family didn’t have extra for things like toys or store-made clothes. But a brand-new baseball glove! It was every boy on our block’s dream to have one, new and slick and shiny.
Teddy skipped off to the bedroom. Aunt T and Mamaw looked at each other for a long moment. Uncle Alan cursed under his breath and lit a cigarette.