I wonder why I wander
in this forest thick sans light
how the birds can fly above it all
peering down upon this “sight.”
What must they think of us below –
– this self-discovery mass –
who struggle dusk to dawn each day
to fly a life first class?
But I will not give up this path
dark or light, while restless
for awed discovery of things unknown
makes this wanderer breathless.
Sweat puddles and drips down to her seven-year-old feet
like the ice cream will soon do.
A sweltering Texas summer.
Grandpa grins through his cigar, proud of his summer income.
Peaches in boxes and sacks.
Peaches in crates
lined up on tables beneath his covered stand.
A pocketknife cuts off a slice of sweet fruit
and extends toward a willing customer.
Grandpa smiles again, pleased with the satisfaction on the consumer’s juiced face.
The ancient Black man, mouth empty of teeth, dismounts his horse.
Grandpa readies a fresh peach. “Afternoon, Washington.”
Washington nods, mumbles, shows his gums.
Grandpa adds another peach to his hand. “Take these for your ride to town.”
The man smacks his curved-in lips together,
up and down, up and down,
a toothless man’s “thank you.”
The walk-in cooler an instant relief.
But the bushels of peaches offer no jokes,
no Grandpa conversations.
Outside, parched again, she accepts the quarter and returns Grandpa’s smile.
A short walk toward the small diner.
The lady in a pink uniform and matching hat says, “Vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry?”
The ice cream, scooped. The cone, topped with a pink, cold delight.
Fifty steps back to the peach stand.
Fifty steps back to Grandpa.
The ice cream drips and threatens to disappear.
But the heat is no match for Grandpa’s disposition.
His smile and character remains solid, strong, and real.
(photo of Grandpa taken in the early sixties)
She was told how fun it would be to watch the parade in small town Fredericksburg, Texas. “Exciting for a four-year-old.”
“Look at that float!” “Carolyn, do you see the clown?”
No. All she saw was the backsides of wiggly people in front of her. The tall, thin man’s suspenders holding up the back of his pants. Arms that pointed to the sky holding miniature American flags.
But she could see behind her – from the grassy field all the way up to the sky.
And there it was. Something she could lay eyes on. Something she found curious and exciting.
She let go of the hem of her grandmother’s, hand-sewn, polka-dot house dress and began to run.
How did he get up there?
Would the man hurt himself when landed?
She continued on, her eyes following the man’s decent from the sky.
The pokey grass would not deter her. Nor the buzzing of summer wasps around her head. The near collisions with jumping grasshoppers were not a distraction.
The man was getting closer.
Panting, yet familiar voices frantically called her name.
When her parents and sister caught up to her, Carolyn pointed to the man.
They were right.
Exciting for a four-year-old.
She chokes on the water and knows what she needs. A concession stand with vending machines.
A flimsy cup no bigger than the size of her small hand drops to the tray and is filled with soda, carbonated water, and ice. A Bruce’s fried pie (lemon or apple, please). An ice-cream sandwich melts instant chocolate on her fingers.
She musters up courage and waits in line for the high dive. Children chatter with excitement, with anticipation. But Sparky Carolyn stays quiet in her nervousness. Perhaps she’s not so sparky after all.
It’s her turn. She makes it up the tall ladder. Her toes rest on the end of the board.
She looks down. It’s a long way to the water.
“Hurry up!” Someone yells.
I’ll go down too far. I’ll run out of air on the way back up.
She backs up and returns to the ladder. Children sigh at having to move aside. She reaches the safety of the flat, hot concrete.
Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow.
Back in the safety of the three-feet depth, she rejoins her friends. She sips tea and eats crumpets under water like a queen. The three girls resurface and giggle at their immense creativity.
“Don’t worry. One day you’ll wake up to find they’ve grown.”
She looks at her friend, then down at her own flat chest.
Tomorrow. Maybe it will happen tomorrow.
“Me” at Northwest Pool in Austin, Texas. (1950-60’s)
Gene is teaching me how to play checkers. He lets me be red and I learn about jumping and kinging. I think about Grady’s checkerboard and think that next time I might just ask him for a game. We could sit outside at his checker table and watch the rich people go in and come out the Ghoston Hotel.
“Cono, there’s a new kid in town. He’s got two pairs’a boxing gloves.”
“Who is he?”
“We call him Oklahoma ‘cause that’s where he’s moved from.”
“Can I box with him?”
“He’s a little bigger’n you are.”
“Don’t matter. Everybody’s bigger than me, ‘cept you.” Being small doesn’t seem to bother Gene one iota. He knows how to stand real tall in his shoes.
Gene gets us together at the open lot. Of course, I put on Oklahoma’s old pair, the ones with the black cracked leather and torn laces. It doesn’t matter. They feel good on my hands, strong and powerful, like I could reach down and pick up the whole town.
“Ready to box?” he asks.
“Ready,” I say. I try to remember the punches Aunt Nolie has taught me, the ones my Dad used to clobber the Tombstone.
Oklahoma and me start out in the center of the lot, without any ring this time, but with boxing gloves on our third grade hands. He comes at me full force. I swing my arms like windmills trying to get a hold of something. He circles around me, trying to get my attention. He’s already done it. He’d gotten my attention alright, right on my mouth. A piece of my tooth is missing. The fight lasts a whole minute. He beat the tar outta me.
“Ya okay, Cono?” asks Oklahoma.
“Sure,” I say even though I got dog tired after one minute. “Jes’t lost a piece’a my tooth’s all,” I bend down to try to find it.
Gene looks in my mouth to see my broken tooth and says, “Cono, ye ain’t gonna find that tiny piece of tooth, not in this dirt’n weeds. Why’re’ ye lookin’ fer it anyhow?”
“Ya gonna try to glue it back on or somethin’?” laughs Oklahoma. I just shrug my shoulders and stop looking. I don’t want to tell them that I wanted to save it for my box of specials.
When Oklahoma has his back turned, I tear off a piece of the worn lace from my borrowed glove and stick it in my pocket. That’ll have to do.
I’m not a good boxer yet, that’s for sure. But at least now I can say that I’ve worn real boxing gloves, felt the goodness in them and have a broken tooth to prove it. Getting a beating in checkers in one thing, but getting a real beating is different.
I get home and show Mother my tooth.
“Don’t worry none ‘bout it, Cono. When ye grow, yer tooth’ll grow right along with ye and that little chip won’t even show.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, by C. Dennis-Willingham
The “real” Cono (in the two pictures below) grew up to be a boxer in the Army. And later, he became the man I would lovingly call, “Daddy.”
by C. Dennis-Willingham
Maybe it was a low point for Dad but for me, it was anything but.
We were living at the Dennis ranch, when Dad came home drunk and decided it was time to act like a real rodeo star. I was standing outside the corral, where we kept one of our two-year-old bulls. Dad saunters over to me and slurs, “ Cono, grab that bull o’r yonder. Hold’em still ‘til I get on. I’m gonna ride this son of a bitch”
“Sure I will, Dad.”
It was better than watching a picture show. While I was putting the rope around the bull’s neck Dad went over and fixed Ike’s spurs to his shoes! Not to his boots because he didn’t even own a pair of boots, but to his shoes! Then he slapped on Ike’s chaps. I helped him get on top of the bull and stood there holding his rope.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I said.
“I’z ready,” he slurred.
I let go.
Dad put one hand up in the air and said, “High, ho, silv……”
That bull didn’t even buck. He just turned around real slow, like he was trying to see what kind of idiot wanted to sit on his back. That slow turn-around was all it took. My Dad fell right off that lazy bull and straight into the dirt, Ike’s spurs dangling from Dad’s shoes.
I turned around and looked in the other direction, so Dad wouldn’t see the laugh in my face. If he was paying attention, he would have seen my shoulders quivering with the same laughter.
He got up and staggered back to the house, mumbling something about killing steak for dinner. Some things sure were funny back then, but other times? You couldn’t find “funny” anywhere you looked.
Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham
Ike, my grandfather, ain’t mean like his son. Unless he’s breaking a horse or doing something else with purpose, he’s got a smile perched on his leathered face.
He stays cool as a cucumber even when times are hard. I hardly ever see that worry bubble dancing over his head like a cloud of Texas dust that most of us stand under.
He got rid of his worry a long time ago at the age of two when Great Grandpa Jim put him on top of a horse. If T-R-O-U-B-L-E comes knocking on his door, he just wrestles it off until all that’s left is the T.
Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham
I like looking at my teach, Mrs. Alexander, at her nice smile and her fancy dress. I keep picturing my mother getting to wear a dress like that someday.
Right before it’s time to go home, Mrs. Alexander starts to teach us a new song called “Home on the Range”.
“Oh give me a home, where the antelope roam and the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day. How often at night, where the heavens are bright with the light of the glittering stars, have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed if their glory exceeds that of ours. Home, home on the range….”
I like those words. They make me feel almost as good as when I’m riding on ol’ Polo, free and easy like deer and antelope playing together without any bickering.
I like it that she tells us what the words mean, words like “discouraging.” She says that “discouraging” means that you don’t like something much, like something makes you feel uncomfortable, something that spoils your spirit.
So now I can say, that “Home on the Range” is my new favorite song. I can also say that recess today, sure was discouraging. But damn, sticking that pocketknife in Tommy Burn’s bully thigh sure felt good. He’s deserved it for a coon’s age.
Maybe there are a few clouds today after all.
Excerpt of No Hill for a Stepper by C. Dennis-Willingham