Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The King of Okietown

 

  

They lived on Beechwood Street the year Davey started second grade at the Elbow School. Everyone had elbows, and there was Elbow Creek, and the Elbow School was built beside the Elbow Creek. Elbow macaroni with cheese was still his favorite dinner, better than pinto beans or Friday hamburgers. He found his room number right away with the name of his teacher on the door, Mrs. Grady, and later that morning Davey was the first one to notice when a tiny girl named Lacey Fremont appeared out of nowhere and stood very still on the threshold of the classroom. Lacey Fremont had brown hair and a pale face, and she was two hours late on her first day at a new school, but she didn’t cry about it. Little kids cried when their mothers left them for the first time. The boys played Red Rover at afternoon recess and Davey was knocked down on the playground and kicked in the face by a boy running past him in a blur. It was okay to cry if you had been kicked in the face.

He rode the bus home that afternoon, Mr. Harry’s bus. Mr. Harry took care of other tasks at the school, sweeping and mowing and raking the schoolyard leaves. In his brown shirt and brown pants, that was being a custodian. Mr. Harry burned the leaves, and he had a barrel where he burned scrap paper and the milk cartons from lunch. The man watched his barrel carefully, a hose in one hand, his rake leaning against a tree. Mr. Harry didn’t smile though Davey had done nothing to make him angry. 

Mrs. Grady had curly hair and she taught the regular second grade and she was old, just not as old as Mr. Harry. Mrs. Grady knew about privileges. Girls got privileges more often than boys. That was the way of things. The first day of school was Monday, and on Wednesday the girls earned the privilege and were allowed to run out to recess before the boys, and the girls were barely outside when they began to scream and shout the words fire, fire, the school’s on fire. Mrs. Grady dropped the storybook she was holding and ran to the door that opened to the schoolyard, and some of the boys crowded into the doorway after her, but Davey sat very still at his desk and waited for her to tell him whether he should run outside or run to the hallway, or just walk very fast. They had practiced the fire drill but he couldn’t remember the instructions.

From his desk Davey could see Mr. Harry through the window. The custodian had been watching the leaves burn in his barrel and Davey saw the expression on the man’s face, not a look of alarm—the fire was a small one, and safe—but a look like he had lost something, a look of sadness really that people would think he wasn’t doing his job right. Mr. Harry was somebody’s grandfather. He held his garden hose in one hand, and the water came out in a small stream, falling on the grass near his feet.

The girls had climbed to the top of the jungle gym and their eyes flashed and one of them held a hand over her mouth. Those girls thought they were brave. Davey didn’t think so. Most of the girls screamed but Lacey Fremont didn’t scream. She watched the flames creep about the mouth of the burn barrel and she stared the fire down.

 *  *  * 

Davey kept his eye on Lacey Fremont from the moment he first saw her step into the classroom. The yellow dress she wore every day was too big for her. It was probably her sister’s dress. All the school desks had been claimed before she arrived, before the principal, Mr. Rossetti, nudged her into the room with his knee. Mr. Rossetti was a square man with dark hair on a square head. Davey tried to sit very still so Mr. Rossetti wouldn’t choose him to give up his desk to someone new, and a girl. All of the children sat still, which wasn’t easy. When Davey sat still, his legs trembled in place.

Mr. Rossetti didn’t know what to do with such a small girl. There was an orange crate in the corner filled with the soft rubber balls that smelled like wet grass and made a pank, pank sound when you bounced them. Mr. Rossetti emptied the balls out of the crate and set the crate on its side and told Lacey Fremont this would be her special desk, the word SUNKIST stamped on the side in black letters. The rubber balls rolled slowly across the floor, and Mrs. Grady had to go after them and gather them up and put them in the closet. Mr. Rossetti put the special desk across the aisle from Davey, and Davey waited as long as he could stand it before he looked at the girl again. When he looked at her out of the sides of his eyes, she was just a yellow shape.

“What are you staring at?” she said. The words that came from her mouth had the familiar sound of Okietown.

“Nothing,” Davey told her.

“Yens are no better than me,” she said. 

He knew he wasn’t better. She didn’t have to point it out.

Mr. Rossetti brought her a chair, a small one, but her feet didn’t reach the floor. Davey was seven years old and he was twice as big as Lacey Fremont. Her funny dress had deep pockets where the girl kept her hands. She was holding something in there she didn’t want anyone to see. 

“Look at the little Okie,” whispered Bobbie Ballew. He had the desk behind Davey’s.

Davey didn’t say anything. He didn’t think he needed to fight Bobbie Ballew, though his sister had told him they will call you an Okie, and you’ll have to fight them. Nobody had called him a name. Nobody could tell what kind of person he was.

“We’ll get you a regular desk,” Mrs. Grady said to the girl. Mrs. Grady spoke to Lacey Fremont in a soft voice. Davey didn’t expect a teacher to speak so quietly.

“I don’t care,” said Lacey. “I may not stay at this school.” 

“I hope you will,” said Mrs. Grady. “We care about you.”

“I may drop out,” said Lacey. “He don’t care about me.”

She might have meant the principal, but she was looking straight at Davey when she said it.

 *  *  * 

He rode the bus home from school every afternoon, and he made friends with Bobby Ballew, and at the end of the third week Davey told the bus driver he wasn’t getting off at his regular stop. He was going to his friend’s house. Bobby Ballew didn’t live in Okietown. That afternoon Mr. Harry stopped the bus on the street in front of Davey’s house instead of at the corner, and the bus driver stood up slowly from his seat and took Davey by the hand and walked him down the steps of the bus to Davey’s own front door. Mr. Harry’s hand was rough from sweeping and raking leaves. He told Davey’s mother about her boy’s plan to escape.

“Give him more time,” said Mr. Harry. “He’ll learn where he belongs.”

 *  *  * 

Not all the kids in Davey’s class lived in Okietown. Some of them lived miles away on the ranches where Davey’s mother found work. Those kids brought their lunches to school in small and perfect paper sacks, the ones you could buy at the grocery store. A sandwich cut in half, an apple, a single cookie. Davey ate the cafeteria lunch and Lacey Fremont pretended to eat it. He didn’t see her eat anything except the candy she pulled one piece at a time from the pocket of her dress. Those long twists of red licorice were her favorite. The first day of school she didn’t have a pencil or an eraser in her pocket so Davey gave her one of his pencils, and she waited until the teacher was busy helping another child before she held out her small sticky hand to him, a length of licorice wadded into a ball.

“Take it,” she whispered, and he knew that he better listen to her.

He ate it slowly, trying his best to let the candy dissolve in his mouth without chewing it. That would have given him away.

A thin gray woman had delivered Lacey to school that first morning, but she rode Mr. Harry’s bus home at the end of the day. She jumped down the steps of the bus like a small animal going down the side of a hill and she hurried off without waving goodbye to the rest of them. Davey watched her go. Now he knew she lived nearby, though not on his street, not Beechwood. He wondered if this was what it was like to be in love. 

*  *  *

Although Mrs. Grady promised she would find Lacey a regular desk, the weeks went by and the girl still sat in front of the orange crate. She sat on the edge of her chair, her feet dangling above the floor. The children were not allowed to keep books in their desks, but most of them had something in there, an ugly doll or a ball glove or a small purse waiting for them on the shelf above their knees. Davey could see that Lacey hadn’t brought anything from home. Her orange crate didn’t have a shelf. Davey watched the end of Lacey’s pencil carefully, wanting to be ready with another pencil if she wore that first one out. She hardly ever asked permission to go to the pencil sharpener to touch hers up. She made her letters, squeezing the pencil tight, until there wasn’t a point left at all, then picked at the end of it to free up a little more of the lead. Mrs. Grady, who wasn’t too bad, didn’t call attention to the way Lacey held her pencil.

The girl didn’t talk to him much at first, which he thought was normal. Davey hardly talked to anyone at school. At home, he had two sisters who talked all the time, talked for him before Davey knew what it was he wanted to say. He thought that was normal too. Now his mother waited each day for him to come home on the bus, thinking he might try to get away again. Once a week, she took him to the grocery store with her. They didn’t have a car but someone always seemed to be going to the store, and his mother was invited to ride along. Mrs. Loring had a car. Mrs. Loring was their next door neighbor, a nice woman with three large moles on her face, and she didn’t care if you asked about her moles, and she didn’t have any children of her own. She had a big black dog named Bear, part Chow, and Bear was gentle and would let you hug him. When she took Davey and his mother to the store, Davey wanted to buy Bear a dog biscuit, but Mrs. Loring knew dog biscuits came in a box and were expensive.

“What do you feed him?” Davey asked her. He startled her. It was the first time she’d heard him speak. He had an ordinary voice. He hoped she would get used to him after awhile.

“We feed Bear whatever we don’t eat,” she said.

“I could bring him something from the cafeteria,” said Davey.

Mrs. Loring smiled and said he didn’t need to do that.

“Lacey Fremont throws her lunch away,” said Davey.

“You eat your lunch,” said Mrs. Loring.

He thought about Lacey. Sometimes she ate the cornbread.

“The cornbread is pretty good,” he told Mrs. Loring.

“My,” said his mother. “You’re talkative this afternoon.”

He figured that meant he should stop talking. It was hard to know how much you were supposed to say to grownups.

 *  *  * 

At the grocery store, Davey had a routine. Everyone went in through the electric door which was new, and which he marveled at. He could step on the mat in front of the door and watch the door open in front of him as if he was an important person, the king of Okietown. His mother got a cart and placed her purse in the cart so she could check things off her list. They walked past the cash registers and two racks of comic books that spun around if you wanted them to spin around. His mother let him sit down near the comic books and read one until she came back. He didn’t even know what they had in the back part of that store. From where he sat reading, he could see the butcher, who sometimes smiled at him and made Davey nervous.

The store was owned by two Italian brothers named Giotta, grown men, but men could be brothers. You called them both Mr. Giotta. As long as Davey actually bought a comic book once in awhile, Mr. Giotta didn’t mind if a boy read the other books for free. A book cost a dime. Some weeks his mother hesitated before she let him drop one into her cart. She would open a comic book and turn the pages to make sure she wasn’t buying something that was against the Bible. Mostly she trusted Davey to pick out the right ones. He liked Casper and Superman, though he couldn’t read all the words in Superman

There was the time his mother paid for her groceries and got in the car with Mrs. Loring and forgot all about him, and Mrs. Loring must have said something to her, and his mother had to hurry back into the store to find him where he was still sitting against the wall, lost in the pictures and the words. Mrs. Loring didn’t mind. But it embarrassed his mother when it happened and she grabbed him by the arm and hauled him roughly out of the store trying not to make a scene. They did make a scene, a mother hauling her boy away from the comic books, a boy trying to read a last page, one of the Giottas following them with his eyes until his mother came back and searched through her purse for a dime. 

He didn’t have candy to offer Lacey Fremont but he had a stack of comic books in his bedroom, and he took them to school one at a time and shared them with her. She couldn’t read a lot of the words, and she asked Davey and he told her.

“What kind of candy do you like?” she said. “I’ll get you some.”

“How do you buy candy?” he asked her.

“Don’t be an idoit,” she said to him. “I don’t have any money.

The look she gave him was the look you give a kid who doesn’t understand how the world works. Davey realized, it was a feeling he couldn’t put into words, he’d been eating stolen candy for weeks. His heart felt heavy by the knowledge.

Idoit was one of the words they learned in the comics. Davey liked the sound of it. When a kid dropped his glass of milk in the cafeteria, Lacey looked at Davey and they said the word quietly together, “idoit.” When the principal came to Mrs. Grady’s classroom and Mrs. Grady asked the principal about a real desk for Lacey, Davey knew what Mr. Rossetti was going to say before he said the words at all.

“This looks like it’s working,” said Mr. Rossetti. “We’ll leave it the way it is.”

Davey watched Mrs. Grady’s face become a frown. Mrs. Grady was at least thirty, maybe older than that. Sometimes her hair came loose from the ribbon that held it in place, and her red face next to the curly black hair reminded Davey of a page he had seen in Casper.

“It isn’t fair,” said Davey. The principal looked at him as if Davey was speaking in a new language.

“So that’s what you sound like,” said the principal.

“Why can’t Lacey have a desk?” said Davey.

“Stand up,” said Mr. Rossetti. “I’ll give her your desk.”

“Don’t be an idoit,” said Lacey, who sounded annoyed. It wasn’t clear which one of them she was annoyed at.

“We’ll leave well enough alone,” said the principal.

“What’s an idoit?” whispered Bobby Ballew.

“You’re an idoit,” said Lacey.

“That’s enough,” said Mrs. Grady.

“Listen to your teacher,” said the principal.

You know how to spell principal because he’s your pal. That’s what Mrs. Grady taught them later that afternoon. “Principal” was a big word

“You know he’s an idoit, because he’s an idoit,” said Lacey. Davey tried not to laugh.

  *  *  * 

From that day Lacey Fremont was locked in a battle with the Elbow School, and it took very little for Davey to join her. They decided early on that they wouldn’t do anything that would be mean to Mrs. Grady. Mrs. Grady was their favorite teacher in the whole world. Of all the teachers there were, Davey was sure she was the best. She had the thermometer when he ran a fever, but she didn’t need it. She held her cool hand against his hot forehead. Davey missed school for a week because his tonsils were swollen. Lacey never missed school.

“Don’t you get sick?” he asked her. They were climbing to the top of the swing set, something they were not supposed to do, but Lacey was a good climber and she made him braver than he was on his own.

“What’s the good of being sick?” she said.

“You get to stay home,” he said.

“What’s the good of staying home?”

“You get to watch TV.”

“We don’t have a TV set,” said Lacey.

Davey hadn’t been to her house. He had to believe her.

“The radio then,” he said.

“You can’t watch a radio,” said Lacey. 

Davey pictured the radio on the kitchen table at his house, how his father listened to it every morning when he ate his toast. The man on the radio talked with a funny voice like a rooster. He made Davey’s father laugh.

“Do you ever listen to the rooster man?” said Davey.

“You sound like an idoit sometimes,” said Lacey. “What rooster man?”

“Stop climbing on the swing set,” said Mr. Harry. He had sneaked up on them, but not in a mean way. Sneaked is the word you were supposed to use. You weren’t supposed to say snuck. Snuck wasn’t a real word.

“We’re not hurting anything,” said Lacey 

“Someone should tire out your butt, little girl,” said Mr. Harry.

He said it just loud enough for Davey and Lacey to hear.

They got down off the swing set.

“Keep an eye on him,” said Lacey. “He’ll set this place on fire again. He’ll burn us up yet.”

She said it just loud enough for Mr. Harry to hear. 

*  *  *

They weren’t supposed to go back inside for another twenty minutes, but they were bored and they decided to try and slip back into the classroom without being noticed. Davey stopped just outside the door. The sky had grown gray like rain, but Mrs. Grady hadn’t turned the lights on in the classroom.

“You’re mistreating that child.” That was Mrs. Grady’s voice

“You can’t save them all.” That was Mr. Rossetti. 

“Let go of me,” said Mrs. Grady. “You’re hurting my arm.”

Davey didn’t think he was supposed to hear any part of their talk.

“Hey!” shouted Lacey, and as soon as she said it she slipped away. It was as though she’d never been there at all. She left Davey standing in the doorway with a look of wonder on his face.

“Well, hey what?” said the principal.

“Nothing,” said Davey. 

“Go and play,” said Mrs. Grady. “It’s not time to come in.

When he went looking for Lacey, he found her by the drinking fountain

“Rossetti,” said Lacey. “He’s worse than an idoit. Believe you me.”

 *  *  * 

It stayed gray that afternoon. The sky refused to rain, though Mrs. Grady said she wished it would rain. She said everything was dry. The grass, the trees, the air. They spent the last hour of the school day with the paints. Davey couldn’t paint well at all but Lacey Fremont could draw people who looked like real people, without the eyes. She painted a black circle where a real person would have eyes. She drew a picture of a man, and he was hitting someone with a stick or a baseball bat or maybe it was a sword. It was hard to tell. The paintbrushes were thick and the main color Lacey wanted to use was blue so it was a thick blue stick or a blue sword.

“Come here,” she said to Davey. He thought she was going to give him some candy, but she didn’t have any left in her pocket.

“Paint me,” she said.

She handed Davey a brush dipped in blue paint, and she stuck out her small red tongue. At first he didn’t want to do it. He thought they would get in trouble, but Mrs. Grady was helping a boy draw a man with a giant jack o’lantern where his head was supposed to be, so Davey went ahead and did what Lacey asked him to do. He made her tongue turn blue. She closed her mouth, her eyes too, and he could tell she was checking to see what the paint tasted like.

“Blue tastes funny,” she said. “Do you have yellow?"

They spent the rest of the hour that way. At first he told her he didn’t want to take a turn tasting the colors, but when Lacey didn’t fall apart or anything or have to go to the bathroom, Davey allowed her to paint his tongue too. The brush tickled. As long as she only painted the tip of his tongue, it wasn’t too bad.

“What’s your room like?” asked Lacey. “At home. You have your own bed?”

“I do,” said Davey.

“You’re lucky,” said Lacey. “You have your own chester drawers?”

“I do,” said Davey.

“Man,” said Lacey. Her teeth were a pale green and Davey wanted her to swallow the paint he’d left on her tongue before they got caught.

“Class,” said Mrs. Grady. “It’s time. Let’s put everything away.”

Lacey wiped her tongue on a paper towel, the brown kind of towel, and Davey imagined it must feel rough to do that. Mr. Rossetti was standing in the doorway. Davey didn’t know how long Mr. Rossetti had been there, but the man wasn’t looking at any of the children. He was looking at Mrs. Grady. 

“He’s nobody’s pal,” said Lacey. “Never has been, never will be.

“This is a beautiful painting,” said Mrs. Grady. She was looking at Davey’s drawing, a long yellow bus with a smile on its face. Davey thought a bus would be happy when the children got off at the end of the day.

Mrs. Grady looked at Lacey’s drawing and at a streak of blue on the girl’s chin.

“Land sakes, child,” said Mrs. Grady. “You’ve got it all over yourself.”

Davey rubbed his tongue against the top of his mouth as hard as he could, trying to make the last of the red paint dissolve. He did his best to swallow it away.

“Wash up now,” said Mrs. Grady. “If your painting is dry, you can take it home to your mother.

But Davey knew Lacey wouldn’t do that. She never took any of her work home.

She dipped her brush in the pot of black paint and wrote a long word at the bottom of her paper. The man in her painting had black hair and a square head. The word she wrote was supposed to say Idoit pal, but she didn’t have enough room for all the letters and it only said Idoit pa. Mrs. Grady looked it over. She wanted to read the word.

“I do it pa,” she said. “That’s interesting, Lacey. This one’s for your father?”

“Hah,” said Bobby Ballew. He had been drawing a rocket ship all afternoon, trying to put a dog inside it. A dog with teeth as big as railroad spikes.

“First dog to the moon,” said Bobby Ballew.

Lacey stuck her tongue out at him, and the boy’s eyes grew wide at the sight of that blue purple thing poking out from between her lips. It scared him. He didn’t say anything more to Lacey or to Davey, even when they stood next to each other at the sink and washed out their paint brushes.

 *  *  * 

Davey didn’t get sick that afternoon. He’d eaten his lunch and there were noodles in his stomach to balance the red and the blue and the yellow paint. But Lacey got sick, and the thing she deposited in Mrs. Grady’s trashcan was a mixture of colors and textures the teacher had not seen before. Mrs. Grady had a little buzzer she could press in case of an emergency, and it would buzz in Mr. Rossetti’s office, and he or his secretary would come at once thinking a child had hurt herself or a small animal had crawled into the school from Elbow Creek. It was Mr. Rossetti himself who came to the room, and Davey could tell from the look on the man’s face that the principal was annoyed at having to return so soon. Davey thought Mrs. Grady was sorry she’d used that buzzer once Mr. Rossetti arrived. She had no choice now. She had to point to the trash can and to Lacey Fremont, and back to the trash can.

“That’s disgusting,” said Mr. Rossetti.

He stared at Lacey as if she was a criminal in his jail. 

“Nothing surprises me, coming from these children.”

“She’s just a little girl,” said Mrs. Grady.

“If she makes it to the eighth grade,” said Mr. Rossetti, “I’ll be amazed.”

He turned to Lacey and took her by the shoulder.  

“What kind of dirt have you been eating?” he said. 

“It wasn’t dirt,” said Davey.

“Shut up,” said Mr. Rossetti. “You and your little girlfriend….”

“Mr. Rossetti,” said Mrs. Grady.

“These people and their children,” said Mr. Rossetti.

“I will not let you speak to them that way,” said Mrs. Grady.

“You need to remember your situation,” said Mr. Rossetti.

“Yes,” she said, and it looked to Davey like she was doing that, like she was remembering hard. “My situation,” said Mrs. Grady. “How did this get to be my situation?”

 *  *  * 

The school bell rang, a mercy to all of them. It would keep the afternoon from going from bad to worse. Lacey was still working the last of the paint out of her system, and Mr. Rossetti sent the two children from the classroom by the door to the school yard instead of letting them walk down the hallway to the buses with the rest of their class. Mr. Harry was outside putting gas in his lawnmower, and he sat the gas can down to wipe his hands on his red rag. He looked at Lacey, whose face was paler than ever. She stopped and bent over once more, leaving a purple place on the grass next to Mr. Harry’s burn barrel.

“What is wrong with you, child?” he said.

“She swallowed some paint,” said Davey.

 “You’re not to do that,” said Mr. Harry.

It was the longest conversation Davey’d ever had with Mr. Harry. The man took Lacey’s small arm and looked carefully into her eyes.

“I’m okay,” said Lacey. “The green did it.”

“The green?” said Mr. Harry.

“Go get in line,” said Mr. Harry. “You two go to the front of the line. Tell them Mr. Harry said you could.”

He put his red rag in the side pocket of his coveralls and walked away shaking his head.

“What children will do,” he said.

“Come on,” said Lacey. Her feet moved toward the line of kids waiting for the bus, but her eyes turned to the gasoline can and Mr. Harry’s barrel, still smoking.

“I hate this school,” said Lacey. 

She kicked the smoking barrel. She kicked it a second time, harder.

*  *  *

That was his last day in Mrs. Grady’s classroom at the Elbow School. After the fire, Davey’s mother said the school wasn’t worth rebuilding. Mrs. Grady wept when she saw the smoke and flames come pouring out the door of her classroom, but a week later she moved to a different school in a different town. Some of the other teachers ended up at a new school in Visalia after the Christmas holiday, several miles away. Everyone blamed Mr. Harry and his gas can for the fire. Davey’s father knew Mr. Harry from the hardware store, and he said Mr. Harry was all worn out.

“They kept him on too long,” said Davey’s mother. She said something about his eyes that Davey didn’t understand.

“Rossetti will land on his feet,” said Davey’s father.

Mr. Rossetti looked like a hero when he jumped into one of the school buses and drove it away from the building. He made the children stay on the bus until the fire truck came from Visalia. Everyone said it was a good thing the fire broke out at the end of the school day.

Lacey and Davey were on that bus with Mr. Rossetti. They looked out the back window and watched the classrooms burn one by one. They saw the first pickups race into the school yard, men like Bobby Ballew’s father who were part of the volunteer fire department. The fire was too much for those men. They had to wait for the real firetruck.

“I hope they’re too late,” said Lacey. “I hope it burns.” She kept her face pressed against the bus window. “Still and all,” she said, “you shouldn’t have done it.”

Afterwards, in the days they had left together, they pretended it was a conversation they didn’t have. They pretended a lot of things until the day a woman came to Lacey’s house and she took Lacey away from her mother and Davey didn’t see his friend again.

He would live a long time in the valley. He lived long enough to become a grandfather himself, like Mr. Harry, but before that he became a husband and a father and he almost lost his accent. He tried living in a different state where there weren’t any Okies, but he came back to Beechwood Street, and his cousins and his uncles laughed and said, “Imagine that. What are the odds of that?” With his wife, he raised two children, a son and a daughter. The boy, they named James. And the girl, at his insistence, they named Lacey.

 

 

 

Barry Kitterman grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley, and received an AB (English) from the University of California at Berkeley. Since 1994, he has taught at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN, where he is past coordinator of the creative writing program and the visiting writers series. He has published short fiction and nonfiction in The Carolina Quarterly, The Chariton Review, Turnstile, Flyway and elsewhere. He is the fiction editor for Zone 3 Magazine (APSU). His novel The Baker's Boy  was published in May 2008. From the San Joaquin, a collection of stories, was published in 2011, one of last books to be published by SMU Press. He lives with his wife, Jill Eichhorn, and their two children, Teddy and Hannah, in Clarksville, Tennessee.