Happy Fourth of July!
“I don’t want to be dead, but what can I do? If Dad wants to kill me, he’ll kill me…after all, I’m just a little kid…” Glory
21. Big Lake, Big Turtle
The Four of July chapter from As Brown As I Want: The Indianhead Diaries-
The Adventures of Little Paintbrush and Snake Belt
Janelle Meraz Hooper
The next morning was the Fourth of July and I woke up at home on the cool oak floor of my bedroom on Parkview. I’d crawled there in the middle of the night because my sheets were too hot. Something was stuck on the side of my face and when I looked in the mirror, I saw it was a dried up spider I’d swatted while I was sleeping that was hanging on by one leg. I sure am glad it wasn’t a scorpion.
Carlos says he slept on the floor, too, and spiders used his face for a shortcut to my room all night. He didn’t kill them, though, because they were just those long-legged spiders that don’t bite. I told him I never woke up to identify mine, I just killed him and left the autopsy for later. I learned that word on the spy TV show I told you about.
Carlos says a first-grader across the alley performed an autopsy on his neighbor’s rooster. He didn’t mean to kill it when he cut out its heart. He just wanted to see how long its heart would beat after he took it out. He meant to put it back in, but the rooster died right after that, so he decided he might as well do the autopsy. Just to make sure what killed him, I guess. We figure that kid will either grow up to be a doctor or a criminal. Maybe both.
Mom had gone out somewhere, and I was about to go look for some breakfast when the phone rang and it was OFB again. He said my dad was on his way to pick me up and I should be ready. I’m guessing that Dad had him call so we’d know he had the law on his side. Carlos said that what he really had on his side was the Masonics. They run this town, and anyone who thinks they don’t better not need anything, like a job or a bank loan.
When Mom came in, I was already gone, and I guess she threw a fit. She tried to call Mr. Sparks, but he was in court, probably with the same judge. By then, Dad and I were already on the road to Lake Elmer. I told my dad that Mom would be mad, but he didn’t seem to care.
He said he had a right to see his own kid, “And besides,” he said, “Frieda isn’t even here, she’s gone to see her mother in Texas.”
We made several stops along the way because Dad said he had a special surprise for me. Turns out we were taking the boat out on Lake Elmer to fish at night and watch some Fourth of July fireworks. I asked him if we could go back and get Carlos, but he said no like he always does. Dad always says it’s Carlos’ father’s job to take him fishing. He knows Boyd is in Japan. He just doesn’t want to be bothered with an extra kid. I always tell Carlos what a lousy time I have whenever Dad takes me out in the boat, but I think he cries anyway. He loves to fish. I also think it reminds him that his dad isn’t here to take him places.
I really hated to leave because Carlos and I had been saving ladyfingers to blow off on our front porch. It would’ve been so much fun. We’re only allowed to have the ladyfingers and sparklers, so we shoot off ours early and watch the neighbor’s fireworks for the rest of the night. Lurlene, across the street, isn’t allowed to have the bigger fireworks either, but she has two older brothers and they shoot off so many firecrackers that the whole neighborhood is covered in smoke. Lurlene’s mother says there can’t be a mosquito left breathing by the time they’re through.
Compared to that, Dad wouldn’t be much fun. He’d bought some bologna, bread, and some cheap root beer in rusty cans. He gets the root beer on sale at some government surplus store that’s been going out of business for so long the Buffalo Soldiers were its first customers.
I’ve had that canned pop before, it’s awful. I asked for some chips, but he gave me one of those chickens-clucking-in-the-peach-tree-looks, so I gave up on that. When I went into my room to get my fishing clothes, I sneaked a peek in Dad and Frieda’s room. Frieda’s closet was open, and it was completely empty. Strange, why would she need all of those fancy clothes she’s got just to go to her mother’s? Her mother lives in a little Texas town in the middle of the desert. Nobody there bothers to dress up because there’s no place to go except to church and the Mexican grocery store. They don’t even sit in their yards and visit with their neighbors because there’s no grass. Their front and backyards are filled with sand and cactus. Not the kind of cactuses gardeners plant. I mean the wild kind that has rattlesnakes living in them. Dad told me all about it and showed me pictures. Oh well, she probably wanted to show off what she’s got to her poor relatives. Mom would never do that.
I went to the bathroom before I climbed into the Jeep and I noticed all of her Pearl of the Prairie makeup was gone too. She must be planning to go to mass while she’s there. I hope all that rouge and eye shadow doesn’t scare the pants off of that desert priest. She’s so darn ugly anyway, even with makeup, she could be someone who somehow slipped out of purgatory after fifty years so she could go to communion.
When we flew past P. Pete’s Place I looked for him so I could wave, but he was nowhere in sight. It would have been nice to see a friendly face. I have to tell you, I was a little uneasy about this fishing trip, even without Frieda, because Dad has never been the type to go out of his way to have fun. Like the time the circus was in town, and I asked him to take me.
“Seen one circus, seen’um all.” he said.
I said I didn’t remember ever seeing a circus, and he said no, but he’d seen one. Now, I’m sure he’s seen fireworks before, so why were we going out in the middle of the lake to watch them now?
When he backed the Jeep up to the lake to launch the boat, we saw a head go across the lake, leaving a thin ribbon of water behind it. “Cottonmouth.” Dad said.
“No, water snake, I think.” I answered, remembering P. Pete’s talk.
Dad shrugged. I got a faint whiff of clucking chickens and peaches, but it went away real fast.
Soon enough, we were in the boat and headed out to the middle of the lake. We passed a bunch of deadwood Dad usually ties up to because fish seem to like places like that, besides, it’s easier to tie up to a branch than sink an anchor. I started to ask him if he’d seen that big dead tree but decided against it. It was clear he had his mind made up to go to the middle of the lake where it was deeper than the Atlantic and blacker than buffalo poop.
When we got to a point that if we went any further we’d actually be getting closer to the other shore, Dad shut off the engine and threw out the anchor. I looked for the lantern, but he hadn’t brought it.
“I thought we were night-fishing?”
“Don’t need no lantern tonight.” Dad mumbled as he lit up a cigarette.
Well, hell, I thought, I might as well fish while there’s a speck of daylight left. I looked in the bottom of the boat, but the poles were gone. Wherever the poles were, the bait must have been with them, ’cause there wasn’t any of that either.
I looked at Dad, but he was already leaning back in the boat with a cigarette in his mouth and that goofy green plaid corduroy hat with the huge bill pulled over his eyes like he was asleep. With nothing else to do, I studied that hat. Where on earth had he ever found something so ugly? Who would even think of making such a hat out of green and yellow plaid corduroy with a bill shaped like the beak on a platypus?
What type of man would buy a hat like that and then wear it in the summer when it’s 105 degrees?
The answer was right in front of me. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that my dad was the only man on earth dumb enough to buy one of those hats.
Ohhh well, it takes all kinds. I reached over and helped myself to a rusty can of pop. Way in the distance, I could barely see P. Pete’s Place. The other direction, toward the military side of the lake, I could see the flagpole that flew a red flag whenever the artillery was going to be firing. The flag was down. Well, thank God for little favors. Everyone always says Dad’s going to have a big hole blown in the bottom of his boat someday the way he totally disregards those warning flags. I just hope I’m not with him when it happens.
I sat in that boat watching the sun go down and looked for snakes and turtles and tried to figure out what we were doing out there. I wished I had that Squaw Slave book, but since I didn’t, I thought about it: “You may have what’s on your plate.”
I practiced saying it under my breath. It was really pretty easy to say like a slave might say it, and it was so darn funny. Further on in the book some Indian men start acting like they’re up to no good, and Maunna says, “I am part Wyandot. I can understand every word you say. Do not think that this slave is afraid to shoot an Indian!”
I hadn’t really gotten that far yet, but I’d flipped around in the book one day looking for more lines about plates. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to talk like a grownup. ’Course, I’ll never be allowed to use swear words. Gramma would skin me alive and call the crows for sure.
Way in the distance, I could see another boat with two men in it. They’d set up their lanterns and I could hear their laughter bouncing across the water. It sounded like they were having so much fun. I tried to think of a joke to tell Dad, but I’ve never been good at remembering funny stories. Well, I do remember the parts of the joke, but not in the right order. I usually get the ending all wrong and Carlos has to fix it for me. By then, it’s no longer funny. I wished he were with me then, joke or not, cause it was weird being there in the middle of the lake with no pole and no lantern. We must have looked really stupid.
Speaking of stupid, my dad was smoking those stupid cigarettes that he makes from those ugly plants in the garden. I sure hope I’m not with him when he gets arrested and thrown in jail.
Soon, it was real dark and the fireworks started but I noticed Dad wasn’t watching them, he just lay back with his hat over his eyes, and smoked. Well, the fireworks were real pretty, but I wished I didn’t have to watch them alone. After the fireworks were long over, he still hadn’t moved, except to fool with that darn cigarette. I’ve never seen anyone so lazy they used a fishhook to hold onto the end of a cigarette so they wouldn’t have to light another one.
He was perfectly comfortable, but all I had on was shorts, and it was getting chilly and a breeze was picking up.
“Dad, come on, we might as well go home.”
“Where’s the fire, Girl?”
Well, it was clear he didn’t care if I were cold, or full of rusty pop and hadn’t peed since we left the house.
I looked over at the other boat and they were hauling in the fish, by the sounds of it. All of a sudden Dad started talking and it was like someone finally got an old Evinrude to run after it had been froze up for years. He kept on rambling about how Frieda had left him and she wouldn’t come back until he did what she wanted him to. Only he wouldn’t say what that was. He kept glancing over at that other boat like he wished they weren’t there. Every so often he’d shake the boat real hard and I told him if he didn’t watch out he’d turn us over.
Dad didn’t listen to me. He kept working at it, first leaning way over one way, then leaning way over in the other direction.
“Dad! Stop! I yelled!” Was he crazy? I looked at him and, in the dark and it seemed like all I could see was his eyes, and they were glowing like the eyes on a dead fish—lifeless—and real scary. I didn’t know what to do, so I yelled, “Dad, stop it! You’re going to turn us over!” at him again, but he kept on shaking the boat, each time it tipped a little more toward the water. I was sure I’d have to try to swim for shore. I was real worried about that because I was just learning to swim and even good swimmers have drowned trying to swim across a lake. It’s always farther than it looks. In the dark, how could I be sure I was even swimming the right way? I remembered hearing from P. Pete that, if I were ever in a boat that turned over, I should not try to swim for the shore. I should hold onto the side of the boat. But what if Dad pushed me off? What if he held my head under water?
Just then, I felt something big and hard rub up against the bottom of our boat. It startled Dad real bad. Maybe he thought it was an alligator. Not me, though. I knew it was a Watchatooka, only I couldn’t tell him because of that promise I’d made to P. Pete. How did it find us way out there? Then I remembered how I’d thrown my sandwiches overboard all night because they were too dry to taste good. At least to me. Apparently, turtles aren’t so fussy.
Dad was acting real desperate. Each time, he’d feel something rubbing on the bottom of the boat, and he’d stop trying to tip us over. It seemed like hours passed and he was real quiet. I thought those cigarettes must be making him sick because he wasn’t acting right.
I’d been so busy looking over the side of the boat to see if I could somehow get a glimpse of Watchatooka I hadn’t noticed the other boat had pulled in their lanterns and started their motor. It was headed in our direction and there we were, sitting in the dark, right in its path—with no lights on!
I kept looking from the oncoming boat to Dad, and waited for him to start the motor so we could get out of there, but he just held onto the side of the boat and braced himself for the collision.
Finally, I started screaming my head off, “Hey, lookout! Don’t hit us!”
I noticed Dad wasn’t making any noise at all. Good grief, was I going to have to do everything? I started to wave my arms and jump up and down, not that they could see me in the dark.
At the last minute, I heard them cut the motor and start to swear in perfect sequence.
“Jesus Christ you dumb son-of-a-bitch.”
The voices were awfully familiarit was Chuck and Mark! Hurray!
“Chuck, Chuck, it’s me, Glory!” I squealed.
Chuck pulled his boat up to ours and looked inside.
“You guys break down? Where’s your lantern?”
Then he shined his flashlight at Dad and let out a low whistle.
“Ou-weee, Sarge. You smoke anymore of that Mary Wanna stuff and we’ll have to put you in the band.”
All the while he talked he was tying our boat up to his.
“Tell you what we’re gonna do, Sarge, just stay put and we’ll tow you in, then I’ll take Glory home, and you can sleep off your party in the boat, safe on shore.”
Dad didn’t have anything to say, which was surprising. Usually he doesn’t take any guff off of guys—especially guys like Chuck that wear funny shirts. He sat real still all the way into the shore and didn’t even look at me or talk to me. Not once. I didn’t try to talk to him either. Maybe that’s because Mom always told me not to talk to strangers, and that’s what he was to me right then. A stranger.
When we left Dad, he was still in the boat. I could tell he was real ashamed and I don’t think it was just because he went night fishing without any lanterns, poles, or bait. There was something else. Maybe he thought that somehow Chuck knew he’d tried to turn us over, but I don’t know how Chuck could have known that. The last thing Chuck did was take the motor off the boat and put it in the back of Dad’s truck. He said it would keep Dad out of trouble.
Chuck and Mark put me in their pickup after I’d made a quick run to the nearest bush. Peeing near an Oklahoma lake isn’t easy. First, I made a lot of noise, and then I squatted and apologized to any snakes that might be living in there, “Sorry snakes, but I gave you fair warning to skedaddle out of there. If you haven’t left yet, just don’t bite me on the butt. I’ve had enough trouble for one day!”
On the way out of the wildlife reserve, Chuck stopped at the resort office to see P. Pete and said a few words while Mark and I stayed in the truck. I noticed Mark was wearing the diamond ring his brother had tried to give to my mom. That ring sparkled so pretty I’m surprised they even needed lanterns to fish. I saw Chuck gesture toward the lake and talk some more. I couldn’t tell what he said, but I could tell he was real mad. P. Pete nodded and I could tell he was mad too.
When P. Pete walked Chuck out to the truck he looked at me long and hard. I got the feeling he wanted to be sure I was all right, even if Chuck had already told him I was. I wanted him to give me a hug so bad but I was in the middle, and Chuck was already getting in, so I was stuck because Mark was on the other side. I don’t cry much. Mom said once that’s because I’m all cried out from my dad being such a stinker—but I started to cry then. Nobody saw it though, because the truck was dark inside. Besides, I’ve had a lot of practice at crying in secret. Before Dad went to Japan, I used to cry in my closet when Dad got mad because seeing me cry just made him madder. Even so, I think P. Pete knew.
“I think Dad tried to drown me.” I blubbered.
Then P. Pete reached across Chuck, squeezed my shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry, Little Paintbrush. Nothing like this will ever happen to you again if I can help it.”
That’s what he said! He did! I started to smile and, when I did, some tears ran into my mouth. They were salty. That’s how I knew I was crying and smiling at the same time.
“Tell your mom I’ll be there for breakfast, early. Tell her to put on her war paint because we’re all going to the courthouse to find that judge who’s always calling your house.”
The last thing he did was bend down and pick up a small, red sandstone and give it to Chuck and say something I couldn’t hear. A part of me knew Dad had tried to drown me, but part of me was still confused about exactly what had happened, or not happened.
“Will my dad be all right sleeping in a boat all night? Why doesn’t he just drive home?” I asked P. Pete.
“Paintbrush, your dad’s in the best place he can be. He doesn’t need to drive after he’s smoked so many cigarettes. I’ll take him down some coffee in the morning, if he’s still here.”
I was too tired to argue and frankly didn’t much care if, while he slept, he got eaten up by snakes so big they wore cowboy hats.
When we got home, Mom was pacing up and down on the front porch with Carlos. Guess Aunt Pauline was out with Mr. Sparks, eating steak somewhere. Gramma was off with Aunt Lilia to some kind of special Fourth of July mass the new priest from Italy was throwing. They heard a rumor he was going to light sparklers instead of candles. I guess he’s really into American history.
Chuck filled Mom in on what happened. Then he gave her the rock and said, “Pete said to tell you there’s strength in this rock, and what he really wanted to send you was a tomahawk.”
While Chuck was still at our house, he got a phone call from P. Pete telling him he went down to the lake to talk to Dad, but he was gone. Oh, the Jeep was there, even the motor, but the boat with Dad in it was nowhere in sight. P. Pete said there were markings in the sand that looked like a turtle, a Watchatooka! He guessed that somehow, for some reason, one of the big turtles had gotten ahold of the rope on the boat and taken Dad out into the middle of the lake somewhere. Unknowingly, that turtle probably saved my dad’s life, because P. Pete went down there to beat the bee-Jesus out of him, Chuck said.
P. Pete told me later he thinks one of the big turtles has some kind of a grudge against Dad. Otherwise, why would he have dragged him out into the middle of the lake? I think the grudge is about the turtle eggs Dad stomped on. I didn’t tell P. Pete that. It would have broken his heart; he loves those turtles so much.
The next morning, The Lawton Bugler had a police report in it that mentioned an unnamed Fort Sill soldier who claimed he was taken to the middle of Lake Elmer and terrorized all night by a huge alligator that repeatedly tried to capsize his boat.
When the police asked P. Pete if he’d ever seen any alligators in the lake, he said, “No, just drunk soldiers.” and that was the end of that.
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