Joyland

The Midwest |

The Rough and Tumble Sort

by Robert James Russell

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

We’d been sitting on that ratty floral couch in the ranch-style house in the foothills of the Ozarks for almost an hour watching re-runs of M*A*S*H on the only channel the rabbit ears could pick up. My cousin—Little Tom—was especially quiet on account of the nasty case of Chickenpox he had just gotten over.

Bit of a pussy, his dad, Big Tom, would say about it. Supposed to have that when you’re a goddamn baby, not a goddamn adolescent.

Everyone mostly agreed, but Big Tom was one of those sumbitches you hear about always makes a situation worse than it needs to be: trucker by day, gone weeks at a time hauling frozen foods from the Ozarks to Galveston, home for long stretches, too, and when he was he guzzled Coors Banquet and wore only sleeveless ‘80s band tees and cussed and loomed over that house like a big hulking beast come to terrorize us in our only refuge.

Oh, how I hated him. Mostly on account of how he seemed to not care for the sophisticated way my family did anything—yes, us big city folk from a small suburb in Michigan...we were high society! But to him we were “better,” so if I didn’t finish the food on my plate, the moment my mom and dad turned he’d give me one of his death glares, whispering I best be grateful for what I was given (even though I had protested repeatedly against being served fried catfish, which I couldn’t stand). It culminated when, a year before, during our annual haul down south, he chased me and my cousins around with his belt in one hand, Coors in the other, fire screaming in his eyes and coal-black beard bouncing along as he lumbered after us in the yard of my great aunt’s place. At first we kids thought it was a game, all this chasing and screaming, and initially everyone—my folks included—thought so too. But it soon became apparent that the man was out for blood and would not rest until he had some—from any of us. Little Tom was the unfortunate sacrifice that day, having tripped on a clump of tussock and fallen like a wet sandbag into the dirt yard, lashed relentlessly with a JC Penney braided belt until—Little Tom was crying at that point—Big Tom scooped him up, called him a name—Pussy, probably—and brought him inside to be suffocated in that motherly way by his mama.

So now, the year after, having been told the annual trip down south was still on and that we would be staying with Big Tom and family, I was less than thrilled. Plus: he had it out for me. I thought so, anyway. But as luck would have it, Maggie—Little Tom’s mom and Big Tom’s wife—had wrangled him into doing yard work, posting fences or the like, something hardy and hard-handed us boys couldn’t keep up with.

Also, the family dog had just been shot. So there was that.

Earlier that day, Little Tom’s older brother Loren came in while we were all forced to listen to Big Tom wax poetic about something or other on the television—maybe about the load he had trucked over to Galveston the week before—and said: “Shit. Dog’s got worms.”

Big Tom stopped mid-anecdote and rose from the recliner in the corner, set down his beer and disappeared from the room with those loud rumbling footsteps of his and all of us—me and Little Tom and Loren and our other cousins Sarah and John and their folks and mine—we were all curious, more than anything else, what was going down.

“You sure?” Maggie said finally taking a long drag of her half-spent Parliament spilling ash on the already stained-brown carpet. “How is it you know such a thing, honey?”    

“Saw em in his scat,” he said. “I heard it’s real common in puppies.”

“Shit,” someone yelled out. “If it’s a dog it’s called shit. Scat’s for bats or the like.”

“No, I think scat is an all-encompassing term,” someone else said, but before we could debate further Tom came back carrying his Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380 and, for some reason, a red bandana tied back around his head.

“What’re you doing, Dad?” Loren questioned.

Big Tom stopped all dramatic at the slider door leading outside, blocking out the sun like some human eclipse while we all looked on, stared directly at Loren and pointed to his bare muscled shoulder poking out his Metallica tee to a faded tattoo of an eagle—and maybe an American flag…it was hard to make out. Steely-eyed, he scanned the room and, still pointing at the tattoo, said, “Got this during Desert Storm. Learned you have to do what you have to, and nothing else. This situation here calls for someone—me!—to do what y’all can’t.”

“Sure,” Maggie called out, lighting up another cigarette. “Alright.”

Big Tom nodded and you could almost see some hard rock anthem begin big behind his eyes, thumping and pumping him up as it rocked his brain.

We followed them out, but nothing could stop him: A man on a mission. Out in the yard he stopped, looked around, then back at Loren. “Where’s the dog at?” he said.

“I’m not telling!” Loren was crying now. “It’s just worms...we can get him medicine!”

“And you got the extra money for them meds, do you?” Pause. “Now tell me where the dog is or I’ll thump you good.”

“Please, Dad. Please.”

“They ain't meant to be pets anyway. You know that? It's a hunting dog—a sporting dog. Meant to bring you food. It's not good to be so attached.” Pause. He surveyed our faces, the horror, spit at his side. “If you want a pet, adopt one of the stray cats in the barn.”

The rest of that played out like you’d expect: Big Tom found the dog while Loren tried to pull him away and got smacked in the process, which brought Maggie out cussing at Big Tom and telling him to save his Gulf War heroics for another day. But Big Tom was having none of it. Told us to leave him be, had a job to do, so he trounced up through tangles of viburnum and redbud while we all sat dumbfounded in their backyard until we heard the pop. Simple as that.

*

So me and Little Tom were sitting on the couch watching television, not so much in the mood to do anything else having been witness to the worst kind of execution.

“Wish you had a computer,” I said finally. “AOL is so great. You know about it?” Pause. “You have AOL down there?”

“I know about it,” he said all melancholic, eyes glued to the episode of M*A*S*H. “Don’t have it, though. No computer.”

“Well, we don’t have one either, my folks, but my friend does—he’s my best friend back home—and you know what you can do on there?”

“Nope.”

“Talk to girls. You like girls yet?”

He looked at me, blew a raspberry. “Shit,” he said. “Of course I do. And what do you mean talk to girls? How?”

“They have these chat rooms, you know?”

“What’re they?”

“It’s like, you go in this place and you talk to other people. Type to them.”

“And?”

“And you can talk to girls there. If there’re any girls. Sometimes there isn’t.”

“What do you talk about?”

“Well, anything.” Pause. I looked around, made sure we were alone, leaned in. “If you’re lucky, you can cyber.”

Little Tom sat up for the first time in a while. “What’s that? What’s cyber?”

“You can get girls to talk to you...you know, dirty. If you’re real lucky—I got it to happen twice so far—you can get them to send you a bikini picture or something.”

“Shit,” he said. “That’s awesome.”

“Yeah. One girl, she was so hot,” I said.

“How do you know it’s them, though?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t see them, can you?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know the picture they’re giving you is them, you know?”

“Why wouldn’t it be? Who else’s picture would it be?”

“I dunno,” he said, thinking. “Guess you’re right.”

“Oh, yeah, and you have to make sure you type a-s-l.”

“Huh? What’s that?”

“Stands for age, sex, location. It’s like a code—you type that to see if you’re talking to a boy or a girl, how old they are and where they are.”

His eyes were wide, beaming. “So cool,” he said. “So we might even talk to girls around here?”

“Maybe. If they’re online.”

“Because there’re a few girls in my class I’d love to see in a bikini.”

“Nice,” I said nodding my head, smiling.

“So it’s sort of a rule, then? You ask that and they tell you and they don’t lie?”

“Sort of,” I said. “I mean, everyone is who they say they are. So far, anyway, you know? That a-s-l, it’s like a handshake or something. It’s how you can know they are who they say they are. It’s how you know everything’s alright.”

“Man, this is great. Maybe the library has it.”

“You think? Is it far?”

“Not very.”

“You want to try?”

“Sure,” he said standing up. “Let me ask my dad.”

“Don’t tell him about the girls, though,” I said.

“I think he’ll like that part.”

I was scared, nervous. Worried that Big Tom would ridicule us, slap us around, maybe, since my folks were off at the store. I could hear them in the kitchen, hear Little Tom tell his dad about wanting to go and why, could hear his dad laugh, that barrel laugh of his, loud and cracking through the house like a storm, then silence. I looked up and there he was standing at the end of the couch, staring me down.

“What’s this about girls at the library,” he said.

“No girls,” I said scooting as far back as I could get. “Just a computer.”

“Tommy said you can talk to girls, though. That true? You going to show him how to do it?”

I swallowed. “I mean, if they have AOL, yeah. I can show him.”

He smiled, rubbed his arm, looked around the room. “Good,” he said. “I think that would be good. Get your shit and let’s go. I’ll drop you off, pick you up in a couple of hours.”

He left and Little Tom emerged, smiling. “See?” he said. “Told you he’d be okay with it.” Pause. “And wouldn’t it be so cool if we could get a girl to come over or something? That would be awesome.”

“Yeah,” I said, nervous, wondering why I couldn’t talk to my own parents about such things. About how once, a few years back, they asked me about a girl at school and I went quiet for three hours, blood-red-faced and unable to form a thought. And here he was in this model of dysfunction and they talked about everything. I didn’t get it.

I watched Little Tom scramble to get his things, excited and ready, and thought about the online girls again and how good it felt, talking to them, getting to know them. Then I thought about the girls in my school, the ones I could never talk to—period. Wondered if this would be any different, these country girls. Wondered if maybe I could be something special to them. That maybe, for once, I could be the rough and tumble sort like my cousins. That maybe I could be the guy with the gun.

Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series. Come back throughout April for more Michigan stories.