I was thirteen before I got my first pair of shoes. Old Doc Crews ran the drugstore in town and wouldn’t let me work for him without shoes on my feet. I can’t say that I blame him. I had been leading the family cow back and forth to school for several years by then and my feet would blister something awful in the summer, and crack open and bleed in the winter time. They were probably the last thing anyone wanted to look at when deciding whether to buy a coke or a dime’s worth of candy at the drugstore. The shoes I got weren’t fancy or anything; just leather, sole, and strings, but they were mine. Paid for with my own money.
You see working for Doc Crews at the drugstore wasn’t my first job, though he did sort of give me my start. On a Saturday, back when I was eight years old, Momma gave me a shiny new dime. “Reverend,” she said with excitement, the way someone does when they finally get to do something they’ve had their heart set on for a while. “I want you to take this dime, run on down into town and get whatever you want from the drugstore. I know Ole’ Doc Crews keeps a whole bunch a candy in his store.”
It was about a mile into town, but it felt like nothing to my bare feet. I just kept thinking about that candy. As I ran down the dirt road I squeezed the dime in my hand so tight it made an impression of that dead president’s face on the inside of my palm. There was a little bit of a line when I first got to the store, so I tried to be patient as I waited my turn. When it was time, I stepped up to the counter with my dime stretched out in front of me like it was some trophy fish I’d just caught.
Doc Crews took a second to look me over. “That’s a fine looking dime you got there, Reverend. What can I get you?”
“I wanna b-buy some c-candy.” Short and to the point, just like any other eight year-old with the attention span of a gnat. I had a bit of a stuttering problem back then so the less I said the better.
That’s when Doc Crews said something that would change the course of my adolescence for good. To this day I don’t know why he said it, but I’m sure glad he did. “Reverend, you’re a businessman.” Me. An eight year-old who just came into the store wanting to buy a dime’s worth of candy. I did my best to cock an eyebrow at him but he kept on talking. “Now you could spend that dime on some candy, and I’d be happy to sell it to you, but you know what I think? You see them peanuts over there next to those brown paper sacks? I think you’d rather buy as many of those peanuts and sacks as that dime can get you, run on home and have your momma boil them up real good, and then run back here to town and see how many of those bags of peanuts you can sell.”
I thought about what he said and quickly realized that he was wrong. That wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. Sounded like a whole lot of running just to watch someone else eat my peanuts. But I did like boiled peanuts about as much as I liked candy. After a bit of figuring, I decided to go ahead and do like Doc suggested. I brought the peanuts home and Momma boiled and bagged them. When she was done I ran back to town to see how many bags I could sell.
Two hours after I had first walked into Doc’s place with nothing but a dime and some candy on the brain, I came back in. I didn’t have any peanuts. Instead I had a buck fifty in my pocket and an ear-to-ear grin.
I showed Doc the money. “That’s good Reverend. Go ahead and take fifty cents and put it back. You never want to spend all the money you make. Now that dollar you got left is yours to spend on whatever you want. That’ll buy a heck of a lot more candy than that dime you came in here with now won’t it?” He flipped his towel over his shoulder and leaned against the counter. “So what’ll it be?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “More p-peanuts p-please.”
Doc smiled. “See Reverend, I knew you were a businessman.”
That Saturday and every Saturday till I was thirteen years old, I sold boiled peanuts and shined shoes in the town square outside of Doc’s drugstore. Not to mention the men waiting in line for a shoeshine used to pitch quarters at me and tell me to talk on account of my stuttering problem. I didn’t stutter just some of the time, I stuttered all the time, and boy did those men at the shoeshine get a kick out of hearing it. “Hey boy,” they’d say as I polished the toe box of a nice black business shoe to a mirror shine. “Say somethin’.”
I didn’t have to say much. In fact, most of the time it sounded a lot like this. “Wh-wha-whatcha-a-a wa-wa- want- m-me- st-t-t-to s-say?” Something like that would earn me a dollar or two in quarters depending on how many people were standing around. That wasn’t bad considering the average grown man was only bringing in about fifteen dollars a week at that time.
I didn’t mind being laughed at as long as they were paying. At ten I was making a grown man’s wage and by the time I started working for Doc Crews, I was making double, even though nobody paid me to talk anymore. You see I quit stuttering. Just like Momma knew I would. You can’t have a stuttering problem and be a preacher.
The drugstore used to be the coolest hangout place before and after the picture shows, and at thirteen, Doc Crews used to leave me in charge a couple days a week. Looking back, I don’t know if that was the smartest decision he ever made, but he was the doctor and I was just a dirt poor preacher’s kid who used to run around barefoot everywhere so who was I to judge.
I used my drugstore money to buy Momma a washing machine. It was 119 dollars from Sears and Roebuck. It was so shiny and new, it looked like a time machine or at least something from the future when the deliverymen set it down off the truck. When we got it set up and running all I could do was smile, and all Momma could do was cry. She had been the one putting my money back for me while I’d been working, probably thinking I was saving it up for myself. But what was a thirteen-year-old gonna buy with 119 dollars? Momma didn’t want me to buy her anything, even though washing clothes was how she made her living, and she could do way more washing with way less work with the machine.
Every time I bought her something it seemed to make Daddy angry, and sooner or later I’d catch a whoopin’ for something I’d done wrong. I don’t think he was mad at Momma, or me, I just reckon that every time I did something for Momma that he couldn’t, it made him feel kind of small. And at 5 foot 9 inches and a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet, I can’t say as I blame him too much for being upset about it. I guess he wanted to be the one who bought Momma her first washing machine.
The drugstore was a good moneymaking gig for me so I kept working there right on through high school. Working the register, restocking shelves, running the loiterers—most of whom were older than me—out when it was closing time, there wasn’t anything needed doing that I couldn’t handle, and since most of my friends would hang out at the drugstore after school anyhow, it was like I was getting paid to be somewhere that I would have come for free.
The money helped me buy school clothes for Mary and me, so neither of us had to wear tater sack shirts again, and at fourteen I had saved up enough money to buy my first car. It was a 38 Ford that I had bought for fifty dollars. How should I describe it? The best way would be to say it was a fourteen-year-old rust bucket that was a bump or two away from the scrapyard. To get it home we had to chain it to the family Chevy. Daddy got in and steered the Ford while I pulled it with the Chevy. I was being real careful, trying to keep an eye on Daddy in the rearview while watching the road.
About halfway home Daddy started waving and swatting his arms back and forth kind of wild-like. I thought it meant that he wanted me to speed up, so I did, but he kept on waving. The faster I went the more he waved. By the time we got to the house Daddy dove out the door before the car even stopped rolling. I was pretty darn confused until I found out there was a wasp nest about the size of a softball beneath the hood of that 38 Ford. The second we started pulling it the wasps came alive, and as we say in the south, Daddy got ate up. I thought he was gonna whoop me for sure, but he didn’t. He was stung all over and couldn’t stop laughing if he tried. Mary said it had to be the Lord. It was one of the few times I remember ever seeing Daddy laugh.
A good job, a running car, new clothes, and a few friends, was good living for a poor boy born on the wrong side of the tracks. Needless to say, I started to think that I was something special. When I made a joke and someone didn’t laugh, I figured they must not have a good sense of humor. And when a girl acted like she wasn’t interested in me, I wondered why. I guess that’s what got me in trouble with Francine.
Francine was a looker. The kind of girl that knew what to do with what she had. She would come into the drugstore a couple times a week sporting a low cut button-down blouse and one of them poodle skirts with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, order a coke with a straw and sit and sip it while I tried to make small talk. She could ignore me like she was getting paid for it, and it tore me up. It’s probably why it came as such a genuine shock when finally spoke to me that one afternoon.
“So are you gonna ask me out or what, Rev?” She said, blowing bubbles with the straw in her drink as I wiped down the counter.
I stopped wiping and threw the towel over my shoulder, supporting myself against the counter like I had seen Doc Crews do so many times. Back then I thought it made him look like he knew what he was talking about. I probably looked stupid. “Is that what you want? Me to ask you out?”
“Why do you think I come in her all the time, dummy?” She slapped the counter and leaned forward. I could tell she was trying to embarrass me. She knew how low that shirt of hers was cut.
I never looked down. I couldn’t let her feel like she was in control any more than she already was. Instead, I focused on a rich brown curl in her ponytail and watched it bounce over her shoulder as we kept talking. “I thought you coming here all the time was because you like soda pop about as much as you like ignoring me.”
She almost spit her coke, wiping the corners of her mouth before she answered. “You really are clueless aren’t you?”
It was hard to keep on like I was mad, the way she was staring at me with something between meanness and curiosity in her eyes. She sure was pretty. “Do you want me to ask you out or not?” I flung the towel off my shoulder and smacked it against the counter.
Right then was the first time she really smiled. I mean there was a difference between a smirk and a smile, and finally, something I said had earned the real thing. “What time you get off?” She asked twisting in the stool from side to side.
There wasn’t hardly anyone else in the store, just a couple finishing up a float, Francine, and me. It was almost closing time anyhow. “As soon as I can get everyone out and the floor swept.”
“Meet me round back and you can walk me to your car,” she said spinning the stool around as she hopped off, skirt bouncing with each step.
“Are you asking me out now?”
“Yes, Rev,” she said with her back against the glass door. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.” She slid out the door and skipped past the windows of the storefront.
I didn’t have a mind to make her wait long. I had the store shut down and the whole floor swept before the couple had finished their float. There was even that awkward bit of time where I kind of stared at them, holding my broom, waiting to sweep the area beneath their table. By the time they got up to leave I was right behind them, turning off the lights and flipping the sign to say ‘closed’ on the glass door.
I got around to the back of the drugstore and Francine was waiting on me. She was leaning against the building; one leg propped up, skirt waving just above her knees, lighting a cigarette. The right breeze would have shone off more of her leg than would have been proper, but she didn’t look like she cared. She was like a picture in a magazine. There should be some kind of caption beneath her feet trying to sell you something. “Where are you parked?” She asked.
“Down by the tracks,” I said, in my deepest, coolest voice.
“Let’s go then,” she said taking a long draw from her cigarette and handing it to me. When I tried to wave it off she stopped walking. “Rev, I didn’t think you were so square.”
Now I had never tried a cigarette before and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to, but I knew I wanted Francine to like me and a girl like her wouldn’t think too much anyone she figured was square. I grabbed the cigarette from her fingers—there was something about the marks of her lipstick on the end that I liked—and took as deep a draw as I could before giving it back to her.
There are few choices in my life that I instantly regretted. Taking that cigarette was one of them. She barely took the thing from my hands before I started coughing. I coughed and coughed like I had tried to swallow a spoon full of cinnamon. Francine started laughing and mocking me in that way girls do, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t breathe, and sooner or later, I started to feel queasy. I didn’t have a mirror but I would bet the fifty dollars I spent on my Ford that my face was as green as sour apple candy.
“You all right, Rev?” Francine asked when she realized I was truly struggling. I couldn’t answer her. I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was stare at the ground between my feet and cough and cough until I finally threw up.
My first date with Francine was a short one. She stood over me in that button-down blouse and poodle skirt and patted my back as I vomited all over my leather shoes. When I was done being sick, we finished the walk to my car, I drove her home, and that was that. We didn’t say much. Francine didn’t even tease me about getting sick. I guess it was easy to see that I wasn’t in the mood for cutting up. I figured out a couple things that day. I didn’t like cigarettes, and I wasn’t too sure that I liked Francine much either. But that wasn’t the last cigarette I ever had, that wasn’t the last date me and Francine would ever go on, and that wouldn’t be the last time I left a place with vomit all over my shoes. Life’s just funny like that sometimes.