Small-town characters

The library in our two-room schoolhouse in Ethel, Oklahoma was a single shelf. Our teacher, beautiful Mrs. Jimmie Taylor, taught six grades and was sometimes spread a little thin. While waiting my turn for her attention, I read straight across that shelf, and Mrs. Taylor brought me more books from her own home. Our country school closed and I rode the bus into town to a bigger school, to a library composed of more shelves. I still remember those titles and authors, the genres that passed in and out of my favor.

My novels, whether set in Galveston, Houston, or Johns Valley, Oklahoma (a fictional place) are peopled with characters both real and imagined. A classmate wrote me once, “I know all these people.” Indeed, I know them, too. I hope the characters who inhabit Death In The Stacks strike a familiar chord with you.  Below is an excerpt featuring one of my dearest creations, Buck Weathers. If you’ve read earlier blogposts, you’ll recognize that Buck shares two traits I first observed in my own father, his love of good shoe leather and a soft heart for the underdog.

Buck Weathers and the junior high prank that went wrong (from Death In The Stacks)

Although Buck had won this round, life had taught him to distrust fun that came at another’s expense, even if that someone had cost him the family farm. He had always loved a good joke, early in life practicing startlement on barnyard cats, graduating to tormenting his older sister till she threatened to brain him with her twirling baton.

Young Buck reached the eighth grade as ready for a good prank as the next boy. The Weathers weren’t wealthy back then. In fact, like all families who make their living off the land, they worked hard, and even the kids had chores. Still, they were better off than many of their neighbors, considerably better off than some. His bus route ran through a remote valley where shivering kids waited in the cold and dark to be transported not only into town, but into a new century. There were kids in Buck’s class who smelled bad in winter because indoor plumbing was non-existent in their home, or so shoddy it froze up in winter. Once, a teacher made a kid move away from the floor register because he was stinking up the whole classroom. But the Weathers had instilled in their kids the notion that it was unchristian to draw attention to how much better off you were than other people, bad manners to point out when you got something new.

Besides a bent for mischief, Buck had another weakness. He loved fine boots and was particularly proud of a pair of Luccheses he got in Fort Worth when his dad took him to the stock show. He had a right to be proud of those boots. He had earned the money himself. In shop class he made a boot rack that would hold a dozen pairs, and he bragged to his sister that he would own a hundred pairs someday. She said that a person could only wear one pair at a time.

One day Buck and his best buddy John Beaver succumbed to an adolescent compulsion to pull an elaborate prank. Leaving shop class with a can of fast-drying adhesive, they skipped their next class and snuck into the boy’s locker room where they proceeded to glue every shoe to the floor. They were just sorry they couldn’t be there to see boys trying to walk away in those shoes. It would be hilarious!

Only, it wasn’t. One of their victims got on the bus that evening with his sole flapping. He had ripped his shoe apart trying to free it. Everybody on the bus laughed, but Buck could see that the kid, one of the poor kids who lived back in the valley, didn’t think it was funny at all. Probably the only pair of street shoes the boy owned, and Buck had ruined them. When he and his sister got off at their stop, he let her get way ahead of him while he replayed the scene in the locker room as he and John Beaver, suppressing giggles and working fast, smeared industrial strength glue on the soles of their classmates’ shoes. The locker room reeked with the fumes. How had they not seen the consequences of their act?

When Buck got home, his mother looked up from the ironing board and didn’t say anything. It crossed his mind that she might’ve heard something. He went to his room and sat down on the bed. His face felt hot and red. He couldn’t stand how squirmy he felt inside. Even if he and John Beaver got away with it, he would have to see that kid tomorrow in patched shoes. Or maybe the kid wouldn’t get on the bus at all. Maybe Buck had ended that boy’s education. He heaved a sigh. There was only one thing to do. He opened his closet and took down the Luccheses from their place of honor and went outside to find his father.

“Daddy, I did something bad today and now I gotta pay for it.”

His father was watching a colt cavort around its mother in the paddock. He reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette and got it going, blew out a thin spiral of smoke. That was his way of giving himself time to think, to weigh the consequences of words before he spoke them. There was so much Buck had to learn.

“Well, son, I was hoping you would own up to it. Are you sure you want to make things right with that pair?”

“Yes, sir. It’s gotta be these.”

“Get in the truck. I’ll run you up there.”

And so he handed over the beautiful pair of boots to the kid who might’ve owned just one pair of shoes to his name and told to make them last. There were other penalties–school-related–but none hurt as bad as seeing that kid in his ripped shoes. With his finest pair gone, the boot collection lost its importance in Buck’s life. His feet grew anyway. And his sister was right. You could only wear one pair of boots at a time.

Today, Buck Weathers owned two pairs of handmade Texas boots. Beautiful things, both. He loved the smell of leather when he pulled them off his feet. Every few years one of them needed a new half-sole. He got ‘em polished every time he had to fly, which wasn’t often. But when he did, when he was sitting up high there in the airport watching an old black man polish his boots, he thought about those Luccheses and the lesson they imparted.