Richie was playing with Johnny over in the woods, way beyond the sugar cane field, over next to the Carters’ house. The Carters were a part of the community but were looked down upon by some of the neighborhood children; however, most of the parents of those children did not share that same sentiment. Those parents had lived around the Carters for decades and knew that hygiene was not their forte, but they knew that in affairs of the heart they were good people. Richie did not look down on Johnny; they were pretty good friends. But the friendship did not come without some caveats laid out by Richie’s mother in a rather stern fashion.
“Now I don’t mind you playing with Johnny Carter but don’t you ever think about going inside their house,” Richie’s mom had told him, and she delivered this order with that stern look in her green eyes that he knew very well.
“And don’t ever eat anything that Margie cooks, even if she brings it outside for you; just make up something like you ‘ain’t hungry’ or you just ate,” she had added. Margie was Johnny’s mother; his daddy was named Harry, and was considered a good fellow, but one who was “not exactly in love with hard work.” The Carters lived in a moderate sized house with a wide front porch and some Victorian accents; there was a wrought iron fence around the front yard that was in disrepair. The story that Richie had overheard from his parents was that Margie grew up in that house and that when her parents were living it was well kept and that they were well respected, some might even have said appearing rather prosperous. Mr. Pollock, Margie’s father, was a superintendent in the cotton mill over in Hardin; for a period of time Mrs. Hoffman, Richie’s mom, had worked there and Mr. Pollock had provided transportation for her and a few other women in the neighborhood. The word was that during this era the property was quite presentable, the house frequently sporting a new coat of paint on its siding and tin roof, not to mention the ornate wrought iron fence in the front yard. But all of that was well in the past and Richie had always seen the house in a run-down condition.
Richie and Johnny had been busy with one of their favorite pastimes—riding the sapling pines. Richie had learned the activity from his older brother Clyde, who used to do the same thing when he was a little boy. The activity involved finding young slender pines that grew close to each other, climbing one of them, swaying back and forth and then jumping over to another one, repeating the swaying, and holding on until one reached the next one. Clyde had told Richie that it was sort of a modified “Tarzan and the grape vine” deal and had even taken him down in the bottom to a stand of small pines and shown him the ropes. Richie had caught on pretty fast and had showed Johnny how to do it; turns out there was a similar grouping of young pine trees behind Johnny’s house and that was what had occupied them for the better part of the morning. They were both fairly adept at the activity but they would take a breather once in a while. It was during one of these breaks that Richie brought up something that he had been thinking about for a couple of weeks; it was getting close to the first of August and that was when the Hoffman family took off to the beach for vacation. Russ, Richie’s daddy, had a well to do sister who owned a cottage in Kure Beach and the Hoffmans had made it a tradition to go there for a week every summer. Richie’s older brother, Clyde, of pine tree fame, was almost twenty now and his mind was occupied by other things; in fact, Clyde had not gone with them the last summer and Richie had found it pretty lonesome. Even with the age difference Clyde had played in the ocean with Richie a lot when he was going, and Richie had missed those times quite a bit that last summer. Richie had two older sisters but they weren’t much fun to him, being at the age of starting to be very tuned in to boys. All of these things swirling around in Richie’s mind had brought him to the present moment.
Richie and Johnny were resting after several tree rides when Richie brought it up.
“We’re goin’ to the beach for a few days and I wondered if you would come along with us,” Richie said. Richie was looking at Johnny’s face when he said this and he could see Johnny’s eyes change, like a sense of wonder came into them.
“Well, I don’t know if I can; I would have to ask my momma. Does your momma and daddy know ‘bout this?” Johnny asked, a look of doubt beginning in his eyes.
“Oh yeah,” Richie lied, and then immediately felt guilty because the lie came out so easily. “I tol’ ‘em yesterday and they said it was fine as long as your parents agreed,” Richie continued. Johnny got real quiet for a while and then said “I ain’t never seen the ocean, and I can’t swim.”
“I can’t either, but we don’t go out too far; the waves coming in bustin’ all over is the best part,” Richie said. Johnny said he would ask his parents and after a few more pine tree rides they went home.
“I swear, Russ, I ain’t got no idee where that boy come up with such a notion,” Sarah said. She was standing in the kitchen and her husband was sitting in one of the dining room chairs. Sarah had used her small inheritance to buy the dining room suite and have seafoam green linoleum installed over the bare pine floor. The table had a yellow laminate top and chrome legs; the chairs were covered with yellow plastic and had chrome legs that matched the table. Russ was nodding his head, something he did frequently when his wife got a bit overly excited about something; he was not the excitable type.
“Well what would be so gosh darn awful if that boy did go along with us; I don’t see that there is anything so awful wrong with him,” Russ said, taking a sip of the cold buttermilk that he had poured from a jar in the round cornered Leonard refrigerator. Sarah’s green eyes were flashing and Russ knew very well that he should tread softly.
“Other than the fact that I’ll bet he ain’t had a bath in a month and stinks to high heaven, just like the rest of that bunch,” Sarah said.
“Well you didn’t seem so awful worried ‘bout the smell when we carried his momma to church back in the winter time; remember, we had all the windows rolled down and it was twenty-five degrees out,” he said, downing the last of the buttermilk.
“Well, that was a totally different thing,” Sarah said, her eyes softening just a bit. “That was a Christian thing to do, and we live the closest to her, and we only did it that one time.”
“If it was such a wonderful Christian thing to do Red how come we have done it just that once?” Russ said, grinning at his wife. He always called her Red when he was in a teasing mood, and that was pretty often. Sarah had the hint of a smile playing on her face as she realized that Monk, her pet name for him, had a point. The two of them looked toward the back porch as they heard the screened door slam and Richie stepped up into the kitchen. There was a step down to the back porch where the small bathroom took up the right side of the screened porch; the remainder of the porch was home to 16 penny nails pounded into the wall for coats to hang on and a five-gallon slop bucket at the end of the porch that served to hold table scraps which would be fed to the hogs. Richie looked at his parents a little sheepishly, having eavesdropped a little before he let the door slam.
“So Richie, you want Johnny Carter to go to the beach with us?” Russ asked his son. Richie was standing in front of his parents, sheepishly rubbing the back side of his left calf with his right foot.
“Well, daddy, I know I should have checked with you and momma before I asked him but he ain’t never seen the ocean and he’s my friend and you know we took his momma to church last winter so I thought it would probly be okay, but now I know it was wrong and I guess if y’all don’t want him to go I can tell him that the trip is off,” Richie said, his bottom lip quivering a little as he looked down at the linoleum floor.
“I know y’all kinda raised a stink ‘bout Margie smellin’ so bad when we took her to church and I understand that, but she wouldn’t be goin’ along, and Johnny don’t smell nothin’ like like his momma does. I even seen him sorta take a bath one day over there in the creek; of course, there wuddn’t no soap involved, but he did rub himself all over with his hands. I reckon that counts for something,” Richie said.
Russ and Sarah had broken into smiles when their son had made the comment about “raising a stink” but their faces had returned to a more concerned look. Richie just stood there; his eyes moving from Sarah to Russ and back. Sarah looked over at her husband; she went over to the covered metal pan on the stove where she kept day old biscuits, took one out, split it open and put a pat of butter on it, capping it off with sugar.
“Richie, you take this butter and sugar biscuit outside and eat it and play for a while; it will be supper time soon and I will call you when it is ready,” she told the little boy, and he took the biscuit and scampered out the door onto the back porch and out the screened door to the back yard. Russ looked at Sarah and thought he could see her attitude softening.
“Whaddaya think Red, it will only be for three days, and the boy ain’t never seen the Atlantic Ocean; why, I bet neither Harry and Margie have ever seen it either,” he said. Sarah screwed her forehead up and said “so now we gonna take the whole bunch?” Russ burst out laughing and his wife joined in after a bit.
“Well, I guess it won’t hurt none; the boys are good buddies and I reckon it probably would be the Christian thing to do,” Sarah said, looking at Monk with a weak smile. A big laugh from her husband had sent many a tense moment away over the years and Sarah knew that it was time to give in and accept the idea. Monk walked over and gave Red a big hug and a juicy kiss on the cheek; “maybe I’ll take a cake of Octagon soap along and me and Richie and Johnny can all lather up in the ocean——kinda make a big game out of it,” Russ said, laughing as Sarah grinned. Russ went outside to give Richie the news and Sarah greased up the cast iron pan with lard and started rolling cut up okra in flour.
Johnny Carter was sitting in the kitchen at the Carter house; Margie, his mother, was fussing with some fried chicken in a pan. Johnny had wrung the chicken’s neck, plucked it, gutted it, and singed it over a fire to get the fine hairs off it and then brought it to his momma.
“You done purty good with this chicken, Johnny; what did you do this afternoon. I hollered out for you about taking care of the chicken a while before you showed up. Where were you?” she asked.
“Me and Richie wuz playing over in the little pine trees, ridin’ them down to the ground; it’s a lot of fun,” Johnny said.
“Well, y’all need to be careful when you’re doin’ that; I ‘member that Richie’s brother Clyde broke his collar bone doin’ that very same thing wa’n’t five year ago,” Margie cautioned her son.
“I know, Momma, but we are real careful when we do it,” Johnny replied. Then Johnny got real quiet until Margie started looking at him and said “what is botherin’ you son?”
Johnny was sitting there at at the table looking down at his hands; after a little while he spoke, haltingly.
“Richie and his family are goin’ to the beach for a few days and Richie asked if I could go. I tol’ him I would have to ask you; he said his momma said it was okay. I tol’ him I had never seen the ocean and that I didn’t know how to swim and he said that it was okay ‘cause he couldn’t swim neither,” Johnny said, the words tumbling out of his mouth.
Margie was moving the chicken with a fork but she was listening intently. She liked the Hoffmans; in fact, they had given her a ride to church one Sunday last winter. She remembered that Sunday very well; it had been really cold that day and the Hoffmans had rolled down all the windows in the car. Margie had been a little perplexed about all the air until she caught sight of one of the Hoffman girls holding her nose; Margie had seen it out of the corner of her eye and it had kind of told the story. She had noticed that the ride to church offer had not been repeated. She wondered if the beach offer had truly been given with Sarah Hoffman’s permission. She had her doubts. Margie knew how people talked about her family; she knew about what was said and it bothered her, but not enough to get her to do anything about it. She also knew how persnickety Sarah Hoffman was about cleanliness; taking that into account Margie was pretty much assured that if Johnny’s invitation to the beach was indeed valid it had probably been Sarah’s husband Russ who had given the okay. Everyone in the community knew how even-handed Russ was; he was known as a kind of a peacemaker. She had heard the story about how he had defused a kind of explosive situation at a family reunion. It was the Marleys, Sarah Hoffman’s people; the dispute was between one of Sarah’s brothers and a brother-in-law and it was a political one. Sarah’s brother had been ready to fight when Russ had put his arm around him and said “let’s go down and see how Will’s hogs are doing.” That had ended it and by the end of the day it had all been forgotten. Such stories that she had heard about Russ convinced her in her own mind what was going on. She moved the chicken in the pan while she looked at Johnny; he was just sitting there quietly but she figgered his mind was being pretty active. After a few minutes she decided what to do.
“Johnny, I don’t think goin’ to the beach with the Hoffmans if a very good idee; you can’t swim and I would be worried sick that you would get drownded, so tomorrow you tell Richie that you can’t go,” she told him. “Besides, I think we might be goin’ on a trip in the next couple of days, so it just wouldn’t work out,” she lied. Johnny looked at his momma and grinned, a sense of relief coming over him. He would have liked to see the ocean, but then again he might get “drownded”, plus he had never been away from home before. He would tell Richie tomorrow.
It was the next morning and Johnny and Richie were riding the pine saplings again; after a while they tired out and went over and collapsed on the mossy bank beside the creek. Richie had not said anything about the beach trip, waiting on Johnny to mention it, but after that did not materialize he brought it up.
“What did your momma say about you going to the beach?” Richie asked.
Johnny looked at him a little sheepishly and said “she said I better not ‘cause I might get drownded ‘cause I can’t swim even after I tol’ her you couldn’t swim neither and plus we are probly goin’ on a trip ‘bout the same time.”
Richie looked at his friend; although he felt a little disappointed he also felt a little relieved. Before his daddy had come outside to tell him it was alright for Johnny to go Richie had been standing right outside the back screened door and he had heard his daddy joking about the “octagon soap bath in the ocean” idea and he knew if that really had happened that it would be a terrible embarrassment to Johnny Carter. Richie also knew that the Carter family never went on trips so he figgered out what was going on.
“That’s okay Johnny, when we get big and have our own cars we will go and stay at the beach a long time,” Richie said, grinning at his friend. Johnny returned the smile and they once again attacked the pine saplings.