Before driving me to the bus station the next afternoon, Mom gave me a credit card. "This is for absolutely necessary things and emergencies. Gretchen and Nathen will take care of your everyday living expenses," she said.
The ride to the bus station was tense. I felt as if Mom were abandoning me again – this time by making me live in rural Arkansas with relatives I had barely even met. I was also angry that, until yesterday, no one had ever told me that the man I had always thought was my father wasn't my real dad. I had found out that a man named Darren was my biological father, but Mom refused to tell me his last name.
"You'll like living with my sister and her family," Mom said. "They'll take good care of you."
I was thirteen years old and just starting puberty. Talking back to my parents was new to me, but it felt more natural by the minute.
"I'm sure you're paying them enough to expect that," I said sarcastically.
Mom ignored my snarly attitude. But I wasn't done. "By the way, you never told me what Aunt Gretchen's and Uncle Nathan's last name is. Or aren't I allowed to know that, either?"
"It's Dwyer," Mom said crossly. "And you'd better not mouth-off to them. Nathan is known to have a temper."
"Oh yeah?" I asked. "You think he might spit in my face – like your husband did?"
"James, that's enough!" Mom yelled. "Ted Covington is your father. I won't let you disrespect him like that. He only wants what's best for you."
"Humph," I continued. "Has anyone ever explained that to him?"
When we got to the bus station, Mom paid my fare to Tellico Falls, Arkansas. She handed the ticket to me, and I looked at it carefully. My stomach sank when I saw the words, 'One Way' printed in large type. "This is real," I thought to myself. "They're sending me away, and I don't even know when I can come home again!"
My whole attitude changed, and I began to tear up. "Please, Mom," I begged. "Please don't do this to me. I don't want to live in Arkansas with Aunt Gretchen. I want to stay home with you and Dad! I'll be good, Mom. I promise I will!"
"Living on a farm is an opportunity for you, James," she said. "It will expand your horizons."
I quit arguing. There was nothing I could do or say that would change what was happening. "Can I come home for Christmas?" I asked.
"Christmas won't work out this year," Mom said as if she were declining a lunch invitation from an acquaintance. "But of course, we'll send some presents. We'll see about a visit sometime next year – maybe after school lets out." Mom gave me a stiff and uncomfortable hug. "Take care of yourself, James."
"I guess I'll have to," I said as I tried not to break down completely. "It's clear that you won't." I watched Mom turn and walk away. Soon, I was standing all alone in a crowded bus station with no idea what would happen to me next.
My ticket said I was departing from Gate 5, so I found my way there. When it was my turn to board, the bus driver looked at my ticket. "Back row, left side - aisle seat," he told me. Then, he chuckled. "Lucky you! You're right next to the bathroom."
"Great!" I thought to myself. "Who needs peace and quiet, anyway?"
The bus trip to Tellico Falls in southwestern Arkansas took about twenty-nine hours. It was a miserable experience! The bus was packed, and the seating was cramped and uncomfortable. People were going into and coming out of the bathroom constantly. That interrupted my attempts to sleep. And it drove me crazy!
I tried to lose myself in re-reading my favorite novel – The Caine Mutiny . I could relate to the main character, Willy Keith. He endured a contentious relationship with his domineering mother. Unlike my mother, who ignored me, Mrs. Keith tried to control all of Willy's decisions – even which branch of the military he should join. For me, the story became exciting when Willy joined the Navy during World War II. I loved the scenes where Willy played piano for an Admiral who took a shine to him. I was appalled at the terrible living conditions on the Destroyer / Minesweeper called The Caine. I liked the intricate plot of a paranoid and unethical Lieutenant Commander who is relieved of his duties by officers under his command. And I found the politics and deceit of the ensuing court-martial for a mutiny to be fascinating. The only part of the book that I didn't like was the ending. The author, Herman Wouk, never fully resolved the story of Willy's competition with a well-known bandleader for the affections of May Wynn, the girl Willy loves. After all that Willy had been through, I wanted to know for sure that he finally found love and happiness.
I was relieved when I finally got off the bus in Tellico Falls. I got my bags, and I went into the terminal to look for my Aunt Gretchen. Mom had said her sister would meet me there. I waited around, but no one seemed to be looking for me. So, I sat down and just stared off into space. Half an hour later, I was the only passenger left in the terminal. Then, a boy who looked to be about sixteen years old came into the building and looked at me. "Are you my cousin?" he asked.
I knew that I had a cousin, but this guy was a stranger to me. "Not that I know of," I said tentatively.
"I'm Mason," he said impatiently. "I'm supposed to pick up my cousin Jimmy."
"My name is James," I said. "I'm supposed to meet my Aunt Gretchen here."
"That's my ma," Mason said. "Let's go." I picked up my duffel bag and suitcase, and I followed him out to the parking lot. "Throw your junk in the back of the truck," he told me.
Mason was about 3 inches taller than I was. He had thick, dirty-blond hair that was almost long enough to reach his shoulders. He was wearing a sleeveless tee-shirt that showed off his darkly tanned and muscular arms.
It was early evening when Mason turned onto a two-lane highway. I knew that we must be heading west since the setting sun was almost blinding me.
"So, I hear you're rich," Mason said to me.
"I'm not rich," I said. "My parents are."
"Same difference," he said.
We drove for about five minutes without saying anything else. That was awkward, so I decided I had to try to start a conversation with Mason. "What kind of farm do you have?" I asked.
"I don't have a farm," he said. "My parents do." Then, he turned and smirked at me.
"Good one," I replied. "I guess I deserved that."
"Your ma didn't tell you about our farm?" Mason asked. "Didn't she tell you what we raise?"
"No," I answered. "What do you raise?"
Mason chuckled. Then, he turned his head and looked at me with a serious expression on his face. "You isn't no fraidy-cat, are you?" he asked.
I had no idea what Mason was getting at, but to me, it seemed that he might be asking if I were a sissy. "Damn it," I thought to myself. "Here we go again!"
"I don't scare easily," I lied. "If that's what you mean."
"Good," Mason said. "Then you should be fine."
"Why wouldn't I be fine?" I asked. "What's so scary about a farm?"
"Nothing," Mason said. "It's just that some people think that living on a rattlesnake farm is a little creepy."
"You're kidding!" I said. "Why would anyone want to raise rattlesnakes?!?"
"We sell them to zoos and aquariums," Mason answered. "And some people buy them for meat. They taste pretty good. If Ma's out of bacon, she'll take one out of the tank, chop off the head and tail, skin the thing, slice it open, and fry it up with some eggs."
I have always been terrified of snakes, and even the thought of eating fried rattlesnakes made me nauseous!
"Please tell me you're joking," I said to Mason.
"I ain't joking," he said. "But don't worry. We only keep one in the house – as a pet. You'll like Mr. Slithers."
I didn't care what my mom and dad said. There was no way I was going to live on a rattlesnake farm. "Stop the car!" I said as firmly as I could without shouting.
"It's a truck," Mason corrected.
"Then stop the damn truck!" I yelled.
"Why would I want to do that?" Mason asked impatiently.
"Because I'm going to throw up!" I lied. "Let me out!"
Mason pulled off to the side of the road, and I practically jumped out of the truck. I grabbed my stuff and started walking back toward the bus station as quickly as I could. I didn't have a plan as to what I would do, but there was no way in Hell that I'd ever live on a rattlesnake farm!
Mason waited a minute or two. Then, he did a U-turn and started following me. He rolled down his window and said, "Get back in the fuckin' truck, Jimmy."
"My name is James!" I shot back at him.
"I said, get back in the truck, James," he demanded.
"Leave me alone!" I hollered back belligerently.
"What am I supposed to tell my parents?" he asked.
"Tell them I was bitten by a rattlesnake and died!" I yelled. "Tell them I was kidnapped for ransom! Tell them whatever the fuck you want!"
Mason drove a few hundred yards ahead of me. He pulled off to the side and got out of the truck. He crossed the road and started walking toward me. "You're getting back in the truck," he said firmly. "One way or another."
Mason was bigger and stronger than I was, and I knew he could easily overpower me. I wanted to run away, but I was trapped! Suddenly, I gave in to the emotions that were erupting throughout my body. I dropped to the ground on my knees, lowered my head, and started sobbing.
When Mason came near me, he asked, "What the Hell you crying 'bout?"
"Why the Hell do you care?" I said through my tears as I sat down on the side of the road. "Nobody else does!"
"Well," he said quietly as he sat down next to me. "I am your cousin. And I care that if I don't bring you home in one piece, my ass is grass!"
I had never heard that expression before, and I sort of laughed while continuing to cry.
"Tell me what's goin' on, Jimmy? I mean James," Mason said. "Why do you think no one cares about cha?"
Reluctantly, I spilled my guts. "Because my dad hates me!" I said as I wiped the tears from my eyes and tried to stop crying. "He said I couldn't stay at home anymore. So, Mom and Dad sent me here. I thought they just didn't want me around for a while. I didn't know they were setting it up for a rattlesnake to bite me - so that I'd die!"
"James," Mason said. "I'm sorry, Man. I was just joking with you. We don't have rattlesnakes on our farm."
"I don't believe you," I said.
"We grow cash crops. You know - soybeans, corn, wheat - stuff like that."
I wanted to believe Mason, but I was skeptical. "Maybe he's lying to me," I thought to myself. "Maybe he's just trying to get me back in the truck."
"Promise me you're telling the truth, Mason!" I said as I looked him square in the eyes. "If you're lying, so help me, you'll be sorry!"
Mason looked angry. I'm sure he didn't like the fact that I had just threatened him. But then, he seemed to tense up. "Don't move, James," he said very quietly. "There's a snake right behind you."
I felt adrenalin shoot through my body. I didn't know if Mason was telling me the truth or if he was lying just to scare me. Either way, I was terrified!
"Calm down," Mason told me. "Just don't move. I'm going to reach around you and grab it."
I was paralyzed with fear. Mason slowly reached around my back. Suddenly, I felt something crawling up my spine and then pinch my neck. I jumped up, screaming like a banshee!
"Gotcha!" Mason yelled as he started laughing hysterically. "I knew you was a fraidy-cat!"
I was still shaking with fear, but I began to feel anger building up inside of me. I tried to regain some composure, but then, my temper exploded. "God damn you, Mason!" I hollered. "You and your whole family can go to Hell!"
"Fine!" Mason yelled. "Be that way! I didn't want you sharing my room anyway. You go to Hell, James. Screw you!" Mason got up and walked back to his truck. He turned around and headed west again. I was left standing by myself on a highway - somewhere in Arkansas.
I started walking toward the bus station. I had to come up with a plan – any plan - to get my mind off of rattlesnakes, Mason, and Arkansas. "Maybe I can use the credit card to buy a ticket to California," I thought to myself. "Then, I can find my way to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and become a hippie!" In the back of my mind, I knew that I was being totally unrealistic. But it was 1965, and I was a scared teenager. That was the closest thing to a plan that came into my mind.
There was very little traffic on the highway, and only a few vehicles drove past me. Then, a car heading east stopped, and the driver rolled down his window. "You need a ride, Boy?" he hollered from across the road.
"No thanks," I said as I continued walking toward the bus station.
"There's nothing 'round here for miles," the man said. "Get in. I'll take you wherever you wanna go."
"Thanks, but no," I repeated.
The man pulled off to the side of the road and got out of his car. He left it running. That scared me!
"Get in the car," the man repeated. "I ain't asking; I'm telling!" By this time, he was only a few feet in front of me. He stopped, and we stood there staring at each other. He was tall, heavyset, and he had a buzz cut. He looked to be in his 40s.
"Don't make me force you, Kid," he said. "We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. I can be as mean as a wild boar, or I can be as sweet as cherry pie. With a pretty little thing like you, I'd much rather be nice."
As naïve as I was, I instinctively knew what this man had in mind. If I didn't get away from him, I was sure he wanted to do nasty things to me. What I wasn't sure about was whether or not he'd kill me afterward.
"I'm not going with you," I said as firmly as I could. "And you're not getting me in that car without a fight!" The man snorted and started walking toward me.
Just then, a car heading west pulled up alongside us. A man rolled down his window and said, "Everything all right?"
I quickly gave up on my plan to become a hippie. "I need some help," I said. "I'm trying to get a ride to my aunt's house. She lives down the road - to the west." I pointed at the guy who was trying to pick me up. This man is going east."
"Well," the man in the car said. "I can save you both some time. "I'll give you a ride, Kid. I'm heading in the same direction as your aunt's house."
"Thanks," I said. I grabbed my bags and got into his car. The creep who was trying to force me to go with him gave me a dirty look, but he didn't try to stop me.
I was highly relieved to get away from my potential molester. I didn't know anything about the guy I was riding with, but I thought my chances for survival were better with him than with the wild boar that wanted me to be his cherry pie!
"Where does your aunt live?" the man asked me.
"I'm not sure, exactly. Her name is Gretchen Dwyer, and she lives on a farm somewhere around here," I answered.
"I don't know your aunt," the man said. "But I know where Dwyer Farm is."
"I'm sure that's it," I said. "Can you drop me off there?"
"No problem. It's only about two miles from here," he answered. He drove to the entrance of the farm. "This is it. Good luck, Kid."
"Thank you so much!" I told him. "You're a lifesaver!" I meant that last remark more literally than the man could have guessed.
I knocked on the front door of the house just past the entrance to Dwyer Farm. Mason answered the door. "So, you decided to come here after all," he said. "I told Ma you weren't at the bus station. Make up a story, so I don't get in trouble – or you'll be the one who's sorry!"
A middle-aged lady came into the room. "Well, I see you finally made it here, James," she said. "I was just about to call Angela and tell her you went missing."
"The bus was late," I lied. "A nice man offered to give me a lift. You must be Aunt Gretchen?"
"Well, who else would I be?" she said sarcastically. "Don't you think I look like your mother? She may have been the runner-up for Miss America, but we're from the same family!"
To me, Aunt Gretchen looked nothing like my mother. Mom dressed in the finest clothes, and her hair was always styled in the latest fashion. I had never seen Mom without makeup. Her whole demeanor exuded class and refinement. Aunt Gretchen looked plain and haggard, probably from working on a farm for years.
"That's what I meant to say," I lied again. "You look so much like Mom that I knew you must be her sister."
Aunt Gretchen quickly changed the subject. "We've already had our super," she said. "But I suppose you must be hungry. I ain't cooking again, but I can make you a sandwich."
"That's very kind of you," I said. "But I ate at the last bus stop."
"Mason, take your cousin upstairs and show him your room," my aunt said. "You did clear him some space, didn't you?"
"Yes, Ma," he said. "But why can't Jimmy stay in Jean's old room? She and Hal don't come to visit that often!"
"The baby's coming any day now," Aunt Gretchen said. "I'm hoping they come home so I can meet my grandbaby! They'll need a place to stay. And I won't have them kicked out of Jean's old room just because we have an unexpected border."
"Okay, then," I thought to myself. "It sounds like I'm not only unexpected but unwanted as well. And I guess I'm a border – not family."
Mason led the way upstairs, and I carried up my suitcase and duffle bag. "There's the bathroom," he said, pointing at an open doorway. "It's the only one we got, so don't hog it up."
We entered Mason's bedroom. It was small and quite messy. There were clothes and magazines scattered on the bed that I assumed was his. There was a small cot that had been wedged into a corner, partially blocking the one closet.
"You get the cot," Mason told me. "And I cleaned out the bottom drawer of the dresser for you."
"Thanks," I said.
"And one more thing – this is my room. As far as I'm concerned, you're a squatter. If I need some privacy, you're out'a here! Got it?"
"Got it," I answered.
Mason took a towel off the hook by the door. "I'm gonna take my shower for church tomorrow. You'll go next. Two minutes, tops," he said. "Otherwise, we'll run out of hot water, and Pop will get pissed."
"Where is Uncle Nathan," I asked. "I didn't see him downstairs."
"At the dam," Mason answered. "He's a maintenance mechanic. He works there second shift. Tonight, he's working a double. The crops didn't do so good this year, and we need the money."
While Mason was in the shower, I tried to unpack my things. My one drawer was only big enough to hold my shirts. I slid my suitcase under the cot and lifted my duffle bag onto the bed. I'd have to figure out where to keep it later.
Mason came back to the room after his shower. I got a few necessities from my duffle bag and went into the small bathroom. I took the fastest shower that I could. Then, I finished getting ready for bed. By the time I got back to Mason's room, he was almost asleep. I put my duffle bag on the floor and got into my cot. Mason turned off the light.
"Goodnight," I said. Mason snorted, turned over, and pulled the covers up over his head.
The cot was uncomfortable. I could feel the crossbars of the metal frame underneath the thin mattress. But somehow, I managed to fall asleep even though I was in a strange place, on a tiny bed, surrounded by people who didn't want me there.
The alarm clock rang at 6:00 the next morning. Mason got up and yelled at me. "Get your jeans on and go do your chores before 7:30. Then, you change into your Sunday clothes.
Breakfast is at 8:00, and we leave for church by 8:30."
"What chores do I have?" I asked.
"Clean out the tanks and feed some mice to the snakes," Mason said with a snarky grin on his face.
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