Friday, November 11, 2005

Rouäl

Daddy had called him Rouäl. I think he meant to call him Räoul, but it came out wrong and stuck to the boy like a trailing piece of toilet paper. You could tell that the boy found the humor in it, but at the same time, he wasn’t quite sure that it was all that funny. Poor kid, he had never been all that smart and moved through the world in a meager way, just trying to get by. As his visits to our store increased, so did his deepening suspicion that my dad was making him the object of some cruel joke by calling him Rouäl. He seemed to worry about it when he was in the store and other customers would laughingly repeat the name, but when he was alone, his smile would emerge. On leaving the store, you could tell that his childlike mind was wrapped up like the taste of the penny-candy that my dad would give him as the boy savored yet another exciting and new flavor. When he rode his bike out in front of the car that killed him, he was probably thinking about nothing deeper than the whoosh of wind from the car or eighteen-wheeler that had just passed by him or the sweet red taste of cherry.

He had come from a family subjected to the worst kind of poverty. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was functionally illiterate or mentally disabled in some small way. They had no permanent income, subsisting on the spare change that could be gathered by picking pop bottles from the ditch-banks that lined the highway. During the summer months, his father would stagger into tobacco fields where being drunk was not so much an issue as he plucked suckers or tops from the plants or where, later in the season, he bent down to crop the leaves from the base upwards on thin drying stalks. The tobacco crop in, he would move on to pull sweet potatoes from the freshly tilled earth, a labor of backbreaking repetitiveness that meant more of his earnings would have to go to the liquor store to ease his cramping muscles. As money came to be less available, he would have to concoct his own intoxicants, using bottles of cough syrup, cheap cologne, and other over-the-counter elixirs that when mixed, would make his head spin away from the sorrow of poverty and life in a small town.

The children, two boys, subsisted on what Mrs. Johnson could pull together from the rations that she bought on credit from my dad’s store. When she came out to shop, it was both fascinating and repellent to look upon her image. She was no older than forty, yet her face was as wrinkled as that of any hag in any fairy tale you might imagine. Her face was collapsed into what daddy referred to as a gurn…an upside down grin that included all the wrinkles and folds of a face collapsed around a toothless mouth. Her hair was yellow and crinkled like corn-silk and looked to be severely brittle and mal-nourished. She was homely in a homeless kind of way, but it was impossible to ignore the pity that one felt for her…her two boys were unable to finish school because they were already drinking and her husband staggered home or rode a bicycle with a trajectory crooked from hooch. On knowing how her life turned just before she left our town to return to her county of origin, it was impossible to feel anything but the deepest regret for this poor, unattractive, desperate and downtrodden woman. Her husband and her child both had been killed on the black pavement of the highway as she sat at home awaiting them.

Rouäl lay, covered in a sheet. He was probably just 12 years old at the most. His bicycle, probably reclaimed at one time from the county dump, was crumpled nearby. When his dad had ridden the bike drunkenly into the oncoming traffic a few months earlier, the bike had survived without a scratch, but not the older man. He was killed instantly. Now this latest accident had taken both the boy and the bike. Mrs. Johnson had come running when word had reached her, although the bearer of the news had offered her a ride. The need to expend her energy, her breath, her sorrow was too great for the confines of a vehicle. She needed the entire universe around her to survive this blow. Her baby was there, dead, up at the cross-road. The crumpled bike had been tossed into the ditch like a useless, chipped pop bottle.

As the emergency crew lifted the lifeless body onto a stretcher and rolled it to the waiting ambulance, she reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a bank’s penny roll wrapper. She looked forlorn, but there were no tears ponding in the wrinkles of her face. She seemed resigned to this fate for her family and as if facing a rainy day. She held out the penny roll wrapper with unsteady hands, pushing what looked like yellow threads from one end out the other and said to me “This were his hars. I took them from him when he was just a baby, still sucking my milk. Now it’s all I got left of him.” The desiccated lock of hair, rolled into a ball inside the penny wrapper, was a prized possession for her, enough so that she kept it with her at all times. In this painful world, though, it was as worthless as Confederate money after the war.

There is little as sad as an ambulance that leaves the scene of an accident with its lights off, in silence. How much less hope can one imagine? The woman who had hit the boy was a local resident. This was considered a good thing, because she knew the family. When the story would make its rounds the next day, someone would inevitably state, “that no-count boy rode his bike right in front of her car. Tore the hell out of the grillwork. He almost came through the windshield too. Good thing Mrs. Jacobson wasn’t hurt at all.”

The Johnsons had been aliens within the community. They didn’t attend church because of the drinking and they didn’t socialize because of their poverty. No one really seemed touched by the death of the child. Had it been a lady from Wilmington who had struck him with her car, she might have carried the burden of that boy’s death around with her for the rest of her life. At least here, in the middle of nowhere, that burden could be put to rest with a few choice words and left like an unclaimed body in a potter's field. There is a condemnation for those who don’t bother to extricate themselves from poverty—even more bitterly stated by those who just barely escaped the sorrow of living poorly themselves--most bitterly stated by those who know that it is luck that often leads the way from such a life, and nothing more.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Johnson and her eldest son left town forever. I know that my dad felt extreme sorrow for the loss of Rouäl, because I knew that dad had been a bit like him in his childhood. His family had been poor with many more mouths to feed. His offers of candy to this ghost of a kid would cease, but his heart would forever know that it could have been him who lived in poverty and died on the roadways of rural America.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Ron Hudson said...

From ZhaK at A Fine Dish:

I just read (re-read then read aloud to my husband)
your post on 2sides2ron about Roual. I couldn't post
on your blog but wanted to say thank you for
remembering Raoul and in your reminiscing clarifying
for those of us who are more fortuneate the details of
poverty in America.

Peace,

Jacqueline

11/13/2005 01:26:00 AM  
Blogger Ron Hudson said...

From Vickie:

This is a terribly sad story. Although you feel that your father felt his loss, you did justice to his memory in writing about it here. For that, I believe you are a wonderful, caring person. I'm honored to have been able to read the story.

11/13/2005 01:29:00 AM  
Anonymous ae said...

Ron, you've done an amazing job of capturing these moments. Thank you.

11/16/2005 12:26:00 AM  

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