|Where I'm From|
by Jim Allen
When I was a child, our nearest neighbors were some people named Slatten who moved into an old farmhouse down the way. There was a daughter about my age, followed by three brothers and the mother. All four youngsters were toe heads, the boys with home-coiffured crew cuts. All the young Slattens ever said about their daddy was that he went away and never came back.
The girl looked after her siblings while their momma worked night shift at the mill. She took special interest in the youngest brother, Cotton, since most of the children where I’m from are pretty mean and picked on him because of his peculiarities. Cotton was either talking to himself, singing or whistling any time you saw him. He rocked back and forth, rubbed his hands together or tapped his foot constantly. We wondered if he shut up or got still even when he was asleep.
I remember like it was yesterday, one of the first times I saw him, almost white haired, red cheeked, knee-high to a grasshopper, wearing a cowboy hat, miniature dingo boots and a soggy looking diaper. He had a popgun in one hand and a baby bottle with orange Kool-Aid in the other, singing at the top of his lungs his rendition of the theme song from Rawhide.
By the time he got in school he had settled down some but was still pretty eccentric. The first couple of years he would let the teachers turn their heads for just a moment and he’d hide. Said he didn’t want to "be learned nothin’ and they couldn’t make him!" He’d hide under desks, under stairways and the custodian once even found him asleep down in the furnace room behind the coal pile.
As he got older, when he got tired of school, he would hide from his sister and the other children in the culvert in front of the school before classes started. When the second bell rang, he’d crawl down the ditch, keeping low to avoid detection, until he got out of sight. With the lunch his sister had packed for him, he was good for the day, evading detection while fishing in the creek or looking for arrowheads in a freshly plowed field until he saw a school bus go by indicating that it was about time to wander home.
In the spring of his eighth year, while feasting on some neighbor’s strawberries, Cotton noticed a big black beetle crawling under the pine straw used to control weeds under the berry plants. He immediately snatched back the mulch to discover more "bugs." By the time they got to him, he had dismantled the entire garden by pulling all the straw and half the plants into the aisles.
The same neighbors caught him that summer on top of the shed they kept their little Ford tractor under. He was dressed in his Scooby Doo briefs, a towel for a cape and a pair of keyed roller skates over his high-top Converse sneakers. They watched with amusement, while at the same feeling victimized by this pint-sized hoodlum, as he contemplated his super-hero flight off of the roof. They stopped him just before he let go of the line he used as an anchor attached to the clothesline T post he’d climbed to reach the top of his launch pad. Even though they eventually, after a few years of vandalism and missing fruits and vegetables, fenced their yard with five foot welded wire complete with a strand of barbed wire stretched across the top, Cotton outwitted them by allegedly climbing a sycamore sapling to the top limbs and riding it down like an elevator as it bent into their yard.
For amusement he would hide and whistle at people in the community, including my parents, as they drove in from work, tended their gardens or tried to relax under their shade trees or on their porches. Word had it that he was the one shooting out folks’ porch lights and yard lights with his slingshot; and he’d been seen running from old man Toon’s barn just minutes before all twenty of his big momma hogs spread out onto fields, pastures, yards and gardens scattered out over an entire section. They said that he’d snuck up on and popped inflated paper bags behind Mr. Toon’s milk cow so many times that she was a nervous wreck and almost impossible to catch come milking time.
Once, when he was in one of his rare civil moods hanging out at our house, Cotton asked my father what he was doing as he hoed his onions. "Weeding," was the answer and he kept on chopping. Cotton observed, soaking it all in, humming a tune. Pops made the mistake of going in for a bite to eat. When he returned, Cotton stood there sweaty and shirtless, proudly admiring his hard work… the entire row had been "weeded," onions and all. Pops, trying to understand this as an honest mistake, managed not to have a fit. But, not long after that Cotton was caught picking and throwing ripe tomatoes at our bannie chickens. He got in several bulls eyes before being dragged to the turn rowon the side of our yard by my now irate father. Cotton never would ‘fess up, but soon after the tomato throwing incident, Pops nearly went to an early grave when he found a rat snake in our mailbox.
One day while eating, my younger brother asked me to pass the butterbeans. Only he used a new word I’d never heard in front of the word "butterbean." My father nearly choked on a mouth full of cornbread as he snatched my terrified brother up by the arm and demanded to know where he had heard such a foul word. It turns out that Cotton had a rather extensive vocabulary. Pops was too addled, so, after lunch, momma went to the Slatten’s house and explained to the boy, in front of his mother, that if he used language like that around our house again, he’d have to stay away from our place.
The very next day, Momma snuck around the other side of the propane tank and listened to us playing marbles with Cotton just as he got caught illegally lifting his hand off of the ground while shooting. He got in a couple of very colorful expletives defending himself before Momma ambushed him and dragged him kicking and screaming to the turn row and pointed in the direction of his house. He was quite angry, stomping every footstep of the way, beet-red, stiff-armed and crying.
A few days later he was back at our house playing with us, eating my folks’ food, tearing their stuff up…being Cotton. On one hand I think they put up with him because they felt sorry for him and the family life he’d been dealt. In another vein I think they, and my father in particular, looked at him and his mischief with a feeling of melancholy for when he, himself, was a wild child running around the countryside. In reality, though, I’ll be willing to bet good money that they wanted Cotton to remember them favorably just in case he grew up to be an ax murderer.
The story you just read is based on reality. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Any likeness any character in this story has to you, your family or anybody you know or have known is completely coincidental.