On a muggy August morning in 1956, I ran away. Two days down the road, footsore and hungry, I kept walking because I had nowhere else to go. I’d just reached a crossroads when an ear-splitting thunderclap stopped me in my tracks, and before I could recover, the heavens opened up and drowned me. I turned, running straight into the storm. My feet slapped hard and fast on the flooded asphalt, my head tilted back so I could drink. The lightning and thunder cracked all around, and maybe I was crazy, but right then I felt like Superman.
Another mile down the road, the rain eased. In front of me lay huge mounds of trash, ragged garments, broken chairs, and soggy garbage bags leaking their innards into puddles on the ground. I began exploring, hoping to find food or a canteen. But as I rummaged through the piles, the thunderclouds grew black, and shifting winds swirled the trash into mini-cyclones. I postponed my hunt and searched for shelter.
On a ridge past the dump, I spied what looked to be small buildings. I climbed the slope. Stacks of plywood topped with metal sheets rose above me. Concrete block and bricks stood further back. And right behind them, I saw a shed. Built only from metal sheets tied to a frame, it wouldn’t protect me from a dangerous storm. But it would be drier, and with that thought in mind, I approached.
A huge bear reared up in the doorway. I jumped back. But then I saw the ragged clothes and realized it was human, probably a hobo or a bum. His shaggy hair and beard were brown streaked with gray, and as he looked down at me, I saw gaps between his teeth and bright blue eyes sunk deep beneath his brows. We stared at each other without speaking ’til he growled, “Well boy, what you want?”
My heart thumped in my chest. Was he dangerous? Would he hurt me? Did he have a gun inside that shed? And while I was struggling to decide, the storm hit. The shed shook and rattled in the sudden gusts of wind, its metal roof straining to break free. But as I backed away, the black sky pelted me with hail. I threw my arms across my face while icy bullets battered and bounced off my back, quickly melting to ice water in my shoes.
I started shivering so hard I couldn’t stand it, and my feet inched closer to the door. “Please, can I come in? Just ’til it stops?”
The man grunted. I wasn’t sure whether that meant yes or no, but then he moved and let me step inside. I stood trembling as rainwater streamed off my clothes and formed into puddles on the plywood. He frowned and grabbed a sleeping bag. “Take off your clothes and climb in here.”
At any other time I would have fled, but I was weak from running, soaked to the skin, and shivering so hard my teeth began to rattle. I peeled off my sneakers, shirt, and jeans and climbed inside the sleeping bag to strip completely bare. When the man moved toward me, I grabbed the bag real tight. He just took my clothes, wrung them hard outside the shed, and spread them on a tabletop to dry.
Trapped like a caterpillar inside its cocoon, I peered out at my dimly lit surroundings. The man stayed near the door, staring out into the rain. Behind him stood a bed built from orange crates and a mattress. The table with my clothes sat opposite the bed and rested on a base made from crisscrossed two by fours. Next to my clothes, I saw a lantern and some kitchenware. And when I turned around, I glimpsed a bookcase behind me, its sagging shelves lined with cans of food.
The hail beat a deafening drum roll on the roof. Then it stopped, and I heard the steady sound of pouring rain. I watched the man. He sat down on his bed and kept staring at the storm, at my clothes, and then at me. I was regretting my decision to come in when he spoke in a gravelly, bass voice.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Eleven,” I lied, but it’d be true within a year.
“You live nearby?”
I shook my head, unwilling to explain. I’d already spent more than two days on the road. The first night I’d slept beneath a haystack in a field, the second in a barn where I’d stolen several eggs. Today I hadn’t eaten, but I was not ready to go back.
The man pursed his lips and stared at me, his brows pulled together in a thoughtful frown. I feared he’d get angry, and I couldn’t run without my clothes. But after a bit, his face relaxed. I figured he’d judged me and decided on my fate, and like any prisoner, I waited on the verdict.
“Hungry?” he asked.
My eyes widened and my stomach growled.
“All I got here is canned beans. That okay?”
I nodded—any food sounded good to me. He spooned cold beans from the can onto a plate. I’d hoped he would warm them, but it didn’t really matter as I shoveled down every bite. He emptied the remainder into a bowl and helped himself. Then he handed me a stale piece of bread—I ate that too.
“As soon as your clothes dry, I’ll walk you home,” he said. “Where do you live?”
I started to object, and he held up a massive hand. But cuddled warm and comfortable inside his sleeping bag, with his food in my belly, I didn’t take that warning seriously. “No one’s there,” I explained.
“You an orphan?”
“No, sir. Ma’s in the hospital and Pa’s up in Kentucky where he works in the mine all week long.” I hoped that’d be enough to give him pause, although I still expected him to push for my address.
Instead, he asked, “What’s wrong with your ma?”
His question caught me totally off guard, and I stared at the floor to hide my face. He waited, munching slowly on his bread. When I couldn’t find words to explain what she’d done, I simply told him, “She’s too sad.”
I couldn’t answer as ugly memories flooded through my brain, images I didn’t want to think, much less say.
The man frowned as he reached to check my clothes—still wet. But when he turned and saw me, his eyes opened in surprise, and he appeared more concerned than angry. He had good reason for concern: my heart raced in my chest, I struggled to breathe, and my brain felt so muddled, I couldn’t even think. I feared losing control and prayed this nosy person would stop asking dangerous questions. But he didn’t.
“Do you know why she’s sad? Did someone die?”
Pressure built behind my eyes; I fought back tears. That death tore at my family like a dog tears a rabbit. Ma said it was my fault, but I had no idea what I’d done.
I started sobbing, and for several minutes the only sound inside that shed was me, bawling. The man said nothing, but he didn’t try to hit me, or yell, or throw me out into the rain. I cried until all my tears were gone. Then I looked for a tissue, but that was a lost cause, so I blew my nose on his sleeping bag.
When I glanced up, the man was staring into space. Pa got that look from time to time, and if you messed with him, he’d crack you a hard lick. I waited. Eventually the man sighed and turned to look at me. His sharp blue eyes pierced my mind like needles, and I felt them peeking into my most secret fears. After the crying jag, I was defenseless, a helpless puppet in his hands.
“Well,” he finally said. “Since your parents aren’t at home, maybe you should tell me what’s got you so upset.”
I looked up and tried to read his face. The blue eyes softened, and his curious expression led me to believe he actually wanted me to tell him the whole truth. That wasn’t my experience with adults. They usually had something in mind for you to say and refused to listen when you said something different. But this guy didn’t fit that mold, and just for that reason, I started to tell him the whole story.
I paused, trying to organize my thoughts. The man sat quietly, giving me all the time I needed.
“He woulda been my baby brother,” I began.
The man nodded, his eyes intent on me.
“It was early May, and I was home with a cold. I could hear Mamaw in the bedroom with Ma.”
“Were they talking?”
“No. Ma was cryin’ and screamin’, and Mamaw yelled, ‘Push hard!’ Then Ma screamed even louder. But after that they got real quiet.”
“The baby didn’t cry?”
“That’s why I snuck into the bathroom. Then I saw him, in the sink.”
“Was he alive?”
I shrugged and frowned. “He was tiny, kinda blue, and streaked with blood.”
I’d known immediately that something was bad wrong and wondered if maybe I could fix him. I would have slapped him on his fanny or done mouth-to-mouth breathing, but no one ever showed me how to do either one, and I was too afraid to try.
“Was anybody else there?”
“Mamaw. She found me.”
“What’d she do?”
“She told me to go and get a shoebox from Pa’s closet. And after I got back, she washed him clean.”
He nodded. “What happened next?”
“She put him in the shoebox and told me I could touch him. But he felt cold and slimy—like a fish!”
“’Cause he was dead,” the man explained, and the corners of his mouth and eyes drooped.
I stared at the floor, too miserable to talk. I’d wanted a brother. I wanted him to be the baby in the family so I could be the big brother for a change. And I couldn’t stop thinking that I’d done something wrong and made my baby brother die.
“Was there anythin’ I coulda done to save him?”
The man was silent for a moment. “Maybe, but once someone’s dead, you can’t change it. And your brother probably died while being born.”
That idea made me feel a little better. But the weight of my guilt still hung over me, a rotten branch waiting for a squall.
“Did you bury him?” he asked.
“Yeah, after Pa got home.”
I didn’t feel like going into detail, but my mind saw it clear as yesterday. I helped Pa build a wooden box, and then he dug a deep hole under the old redbud tree out back. We all stood around it and sang hymns. Pa read from the Bible before he put the wooden box down inside the hole. But the worst part, at least for me, was shoveling back the dirt. I felt wicked for covering my brother up with dirt.
The man was quiet too. At his age, he’d probably seen a lot of funerals. When he spoke next, he surprised me. “Was your ma any happier before she lost the baby?”
“No!” I snapped. “She was either sad or mad, and mostly mad at me.” I closed my mouth to stop my hateful words. Mamaw had explained that Ma was sick, and maybe she was right. In some distant memory, which felt more like a dream, I saw Ma laughing. She used to sing, read to me, and smile. I wanted that Ma back and couldn’t figure out where she’d gone.
“She was a singer,” I explained. “And durin’ the war, she sang in Nashville. Lots of important people thought she’d become famous. But after Pa came home, Ma had me. So it’s my fault she got stuck in Walnut Springs.”
Oops! I’d told him where I lived. But he didn’t change expression and continued to take seriously everything I said. It felt weird to have anyone pay such close attention. I liked it. Ma never talked with me, Mamaw was too busy, and nowadays Pa was never there.
I glanced up at the man, and his bearded face looked puzzled. Then he asked, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Just Sarah, she’s almost four years older. Mamaw took care of her while Ma sang in Nashville. But Mamaw said I was one too many.”
“And then your ma went and had another.” The man shook his head as if that puzzle went beyond his understanding. He glanced outside. The rain had stopped, and the sun was peeking out from behind a towering black cloud. “I’m going for a walk. You can stay here if you want.” And with that, he left the shed and disappeared. Since I was buck naked, I curled up in the sleeping bag and slept.