A MG Novel by: Tami Snow
Before Things Went All Crazy Like
My name is Theodore James Crumbottom; my friends call me TJ. My momma calls me Teddy.
When I was five, my daddy left momma and me to become a war hero. He never did come home. That’s when we moved from the chilly town of Aberdeen, South Dakota to the sweltering Southwest. I loved my new home more than words could say. I would never again have to worry about not being able to get out the front door because there was snow piled up to the roof. Momma told me Arizona was a land where I could catch lizards year-round. And she was right.
My momma’s Suzanna and we moved in with her momma, my Gramma Ruth. I remember it like yesterday. My face pressed up against the warm glass as I looked out the window of our old blue Plymouth. I was so excited I could’ve peed myself. When we turned into the driveway of Crumbottom Auto Repair, I couldn’t help but wonder if that auto shop was where we were going to live. Secretly, I wished it was. But we kept going, driving to the very back of the car cluttered property.
I remember how the gravel crunched under our tires, as we pulled up to a double-wide trailer-house. Momma said it was the color of canned asparagus—I thought boogers. Around the trailer was a yellowed lawn that would poke prickers into your feet if you didn’t wear shoes, and surrounding the lawn was a chain link fence. Wrapped ‘round that fence was a high wall of pink and white flowered Oleander bushes, where thousands of little, green aphid bugs lived. There was one pine tree that grew up higher than the trailer. One time, I climbed up that tree and onto the roof, jumped down into a pile of old tires, and nearly busted my leg.
Momma scolded me. “Never do that again, Teddy,” she said. “You could’ve gotten yourself killed.” So I didn’t.
Next door to us lived my two younger cousins—both girls and therefore, no fun at all. The only thing I found interesting about them was their mustard colored trailer and the crazy number of cockroaches I was able to catch in and around it. I would collect as many as I could find and bottle them up in a mayonnaise jar, watching as they swirled around like a tiny living tornado. A few times I got in trouble for chasing the girls with them. My momma said that I should leave the girls alone. So I did—most times.
Luckily for me, in the front of our seemingly huge property stood my family’s auto shop, “built brick-by-brick” with the hands of Grampa Ross, “may he rest in peace.” This building stood sturdy and gleaming white by the roadside, and afforded me many opportunities for adventure. The “shop” was like a second home to me. So much so, that I had a permanent caking of grease on my feet from walking around in its filth.
I was perfectly thrilled by the skill of the mechanics. I hung on every twist of their screw-drivers, the clicks of their ratchets, and the whirring of their newly installed power tools. So many times, that I couldn’t count them on my fingers any longer, these magicians of auto repair would give me the boot, saying, “If you don’t skedaddle, you’re bound to get hurt.” I didn’t mind all that much, returning the next day and likely the one after that to hear them repeat their warnings.
Easily, I would move on to the next adventure.
Though I couldn’t really see it in my momma now, she had been a rodeo princess when she was younger. My grampa Ross had been a real-live honest-to-goodness cowboy—riding horses and playing his guitar. After Grampa passed, there were no horses kept on the Crumbottom property, which I thought was a teeny bit unfair. But while my grampa had been building the shop, he had also built a small barn and some corrals—which were now rickety and crawling with Black Widow spiders. I loved to rummage around and through crumbling boxes of old horse stuff—there was even an old pink leather saddle that used to be momma’s back in the day. I suppose it was good thing I wasn’t afraid of spiders.
Along side of the big white-washed auto shop was a river of oil, thick and black, (folks would drain cars of their oil and fluids and dump it, wherever, back then). It was a thrill for me to drop various sizes of stones into the syrupy muck to see how long it would take ‘em to sink outta sight.
And so—it was the same thing pretty much every day. After I would get home from middle school, I would explore the Oleander jungle, or pretend to ride a horse at full gallop on momma’s old pink saddle, or perhaps I might go fishing in the black river. But one day, something was different when I arrived home from school. Momma’s best friend Debbie arrived from California with her daughter, Erika.
Now, Erika wasn’t some divine beauty or anything of the sort, but something about her stood out as different from any other girl I had ever met. Her hair was the brown of a mouse, her eyes were the color of mud, she had a sprinkling of freckles on her tiny nose, and she was built exactly like me—fence post thin and tall. We had both been living for the same number of years—eleven—which I thought was pretty cool. But what I thought was cooler was how her jeans were ripped wide open at the knees and her purple shirt wasn’t exactly what you would call clean. In fact, had her hair not been long and her nails not been painted the color of bubble gum, I might’ve thought her a boy.
I suppose I could get into the history of how we two kindred spirits became friends, but there is far too much to tell. So I’ll just say that we became friends—the best of.
“You ready TJ,” Erika asked, poking her head out of the window of her momma’s boat-like Lincoln.
“I was born ready,” I replied, wrapping my tattered green swimming towel around my shoulders. I reached out and popped open the back car door and slid onto the threadbare seat behind Erika.
Debbie sat straight up and real close to the steering wheel of her car. “Did your momma give you some money?” She asked me, pulling out onto Wetmore Road and heading toward the community pool.
I produced a single dollar bill, waving it in the air as though it was a flag.
“Good,” Debbie nodded.
Erika bounced up and down in the passenger seat for a few minutes before her excitement finally got the better of her and she twisted around to face me.
Now let me add here, that it was not a big deal for a kid to roam around freely in the car—wearing your seat belt was an option back then. Most cars didn’t even have ‘em.
“I’ll bet you a zillion dollars that I can do a better and higher dive than you can, TJ Crumbottom,” Ericka said, flashing me her biggest, buck-toothed, grin.
“You wish,” I said, rolling my eyes, “first of all, you don’t even have five dollars, let alone a zillion.”
“Awe, come on. You scared?” said Erika.
“Not even close to scared.” I folded my arms and looked out the window for another minute before turning back to Erika, “Fine. You’re on,” I agreed with a quick nod of my head. The mop of my black hair fell in my eyes and I quickly pushed it back outta my face. If momma didn’t cut my hair soon the kids at school would be calling me a sissy girl for sure.
Erika spit in the palm of her hand and offered it to me to seal the deal.
“I wish you wouldn’t do stuff like that,” said her momma, “It’s just not lady-like.”
Erika and I looked at each-other, holding back our giggles.
Erika motioned with her eyes toward her still outstretched hand. I spit into mine and shook hers firmly.
I watched the world go by in a blur from the back seat of Erika’s car window as we made our way to the pool that last weekend before summer break.
“You owe me a zillion dollars,” Erika teased, digging her elbow into my ribs as we stood outside of the pool. Thunder rumbled through the sky. The smell of desert rain moved through the air. Very soon I expected there would be lightning above us.
“Ya well you’re gonna have to wait a long time for payment. I may be a thousand years old before I can save up that much cash.” I said, positioning myself around the corner of the building and out of the school bully, Clyde’s, line of sight. Erika followed my eyes and knew immediately what I was doing.
“What are you so worried about,” she asked as she chewed on the inside of her cheek. She narrowed her eyes, looking past me and focusing on the big and burly torturer—Clyde Bogden.
I was far too embarrassed to explain to her that Clyde had given me more than my fair share of wedgies, swirlies’ and wet-willies. He had flushed my homework, scribbled loser across my fore-head with Sharpie marker and pinned me down and made me call myself stupid. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he had spat in my soda and made me drink it, held me down and farted in my face, (one of the worst experiences in my life), and at every given opportunity he would do something to cause me physical pain—punching me in the stomach, smacking me up-side my head and giving me Charlie horses—his specialty. I thought it quite possible that if he saw me—right here—right now, standing with Erika, he might just come up with a way to cause me not only physical pain but embarrassment as well. I couldn’t help but shrink a little lower into the building’s shadow so there would be no possibility he might see me.
“Theodore James Crumbottom,” she whispered a reprimand that sounded exactly like my momma, “Stop being such a chicken. You really should stand up to that spiky-haired creep.”
I shrugged, “Ya you’re probably right.” I said it—but I didn’t really mean it. “I would rather die a slow and painful death in private, thank you very much.” And Clyde was known for holding very public executions.
Erika stuck her hip out and folded her arms across her chest. The funny thing was, when she looked at me this way, it reminded me that she was a girl. “Humph,” she muttered.
My stomach rumbled.
A slow smile crept across her face just as her stomach snarled in agreement.
“D’ya got anything to eat,” I asked as my stomach gurgled again.
“All I got is this warm Coke,” she made a funny face and from under the bright red beach towel she had wrapped around her body, she produced a glass pop bottle half-full of warm cola.
Thunder rumbled through the sky, reminding us the storm was getting closer. From the corner of my eye I noticed a scattered but large pile of pop-corn. My mouth started to water. I looked around to make sure no one else was looking. Luckily, pretty much the entire parking lot had cleared out and Erika and I were practically the only ones left waiting.
“Where the heck is your momma?” Erika griped, “I’m starving’.”
I moved slowly and deliberately toward the pile, “I don’t think she knows the pool closed on account of the lightning.” My jaws were aching; I could already taste the salt and butter melting in my mouth.
She looked at me quizzically. “Where is your head,” she asked, watching me move closer to the dirt encrusted snack.
“I am so hungry,” I groaned as I bent to retrieve the first pieces from the gravel parking lot. I popped a piece into my mouth. “Mmm, it tastes so good,” I moaned, relishing in the stale buttery deliciousness. True, it was slightly gritty but at this point I was beyond caring.
At the first sound of pleasure, Erika bent down and joined me in a—“who-gives-a-care that it’s dirty, I’m starved”—pop-corn feast. Sometimes we had to blow the dirt or shake the rocks off, but it was well worth the effort. Soon we had picked the gravel clean. But, of course, it didn’t touch our hunger.
Lighting crackled through sky, covering the loud growling of our stomachs. The clouds were getting thicker and darker by the minute. “I think it might be a good idea if we start walking.” I told her.
“Ok,” she said, jumping up and wrapping the towel around herself a little tighter.
The air grew cooler and then it started to rain. It wasn’t a sprinkling kind of rain; it was the cats and dogs sort. It wasn’t a minute before we were soaked.
“Can you believe just how lucky we are TJ,” Ericka asked, her face tilted up to the sky. I watched the rain bounce off her speckled cheeks.
Really, I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I said, “Sure.”
Before long, giant puddles started to form.
“Let’s have a puddle jumpin’ contest,” she said, all happy like.
“I don’t know if you want to do that,” I said, trying to act cool.
“And, just why not?”
“Well,” I said, “Cuz I’m gonna beat the pants off you.”
“Ha,” she said and then took off running.
We ran and jumped, and ran and jumped. A few times we decided to jump the puddles standing on their edges. We were covered in filth. I was hoping that by the time we got home, the rain would wash us clean.
We knew that we were halfway there when we reached the park. Erika turned to look at me, smiled, and ran toward the swings. I followed close behind.
It continued raining fat bubbly drops.
We swung, we slid, and we played on the jungle gym. And all the while, though we didn’t know it, we were being watched.