The Sum Of His Worth
"Ron Argo's The Sum of His Worth is first of all a work of serious literary fiction, a coming-of-age story set in a time of national upheaval ... rich in ambiance, descriptive detail, and incident ... My interest never flagged [in this] convincing, meaningful, and deeply immersive tale."—Ron Terpening, author of Nine Days in October and Tropic of Fear.
THE SUM OF HIS WORTH
We’d come out to the woods three hours ago to shoot our rifles and drink some beer. Now we were out of both but still hanging around. Cause who wanted to get back to the concrete oven of Woodstock? Out here, deep in the woods and in the midnight cool, it felt like you were floating in space or something, like you could be riding that sliver of cold moon I kept seeing pass across the tips of pines.
Still, we should’ve been gone because our lives were about to change.
The chiggers wouldn’t give up, but that was nothing. For me, anyway. Herman, he swatted at them like crazy, mumbling profanities like they’d get the message and vamoose. The only thing that got me was pine sap. I hated the stuff with a passion. And wouldn’t you know it, it just so happened right then—probably cause I was thinking about it—that I leaned off a tree and felt it sticking to the soft underside of my arm, the worst place it could get on you. Almost.
“Shit, man, let’s go,” I said. “I’m ready to go.” Pine sap could find me on a church pew, anywhere.
“Just a minute. What’s the big hurry?” Herman was still looking for the phantom possum he had missed but claimed emphatically he hit. We never heard it fall and a possum is a heavy, clumsy animal that makes a lot of noise, even if it comes down wounded instead of falling deadweight through the branches. Besides, it was too dense that far up to see much of anything, except every now and then that arch of cool white moon.
If it hadn’t been for his stubbornness we wouldn’t have been there when it happened, though I wasn’t going to put the blame square on Herman. It takes two to tango. I told him to at least turn the damn radio off so the critters would quieten down.
I popped a stick match under my thumbnail and breathed in its acrid phosphorus odor, a smell like—I don’t know—that smells, comforting. I turned the match upside down to see how long it’d take the flame to reach my fingers and then how long I could hold on. Two blinks of the eye, that was it before I tossed it to the mossy ground.
“Look, bean brain,” I said, striking another match, trying it again, “I gotta get up early. I got an appointment.”
He stared at the match like a damn moth then turned off the portable. He wasn’t buying the appointment thing, though. His eyes narrowed. “Appointment for what? Shit, what kinda ’pointment you got? And lay off the matches, somebody might spot us.”
I didn’t have to answer. My only appointment was with Vicki and you sure couldn’t call that an appointment. A rendezvous maybe, after her parents went to work. I wasn’t going to tell Herman that, though, cause he would just start advising me what to do with her, like I’d never been with a girl before. By the time you were fourteen years old, like both of us were, you had sure better been with a girl already. But I had to admit Herman knew what he was talking about when it came to girls. He was a real lover boy, had this James Dean/Dean Martin way of talking to girls that sent them. They swarmed him at every party we went to together. I hated him for it. Girls rubbed themselves all over Herman, sticking their fingers in his greasy curly locks and parting their wet lips, just waiting till he got ready to plant one on them. He usually did. But Herman’s flaw was he fell in love and then he hit hard when it came to an end. I still couldn’t figure why they would get their hands greasy in his hair. It was disgusting. He oiled it with Brylcreem and applied Vaseline to the ducktail when he chose to have one and sometimes used his sister’s rose oil on his Elvis sideburns. Me, I used Butch Wax because I wanted my flattop standing up like brush bristles.
“You missed, let’s go.” I was getting aggravated with him now. I wanted to get home so I could scrub the pine sap off my arm and get to sleep. “You probably hit a house a mile away and they’ve called the cops on us. They’ll be here anytime now, you want that?”
“I heard him fall. He’s around here somewheres.”
It wasn’t doing any good arguing with a bullhead like Herman Brown. I just shook my head and dropped it.
We’d used up the five bullets we each had hours ago. That was about to become important because we might have been able to help that poor man with a couple of shots in the air.
“Shh, listen,” I said in a low voice. “Hear it?”
“Yeah. . . . You think it’s the cops?”
Right then a light began to flicker through the timber, getting brighter, like the ghostly figure in my mind’s eye of the headless horseman barreling toward you through the woods in the Sleepy Hollow story. That’s how fast the light was coming on. Too fast for us to even run, so we stood thin behind separate trees to dodge the wavering flashes of light casting shadows into the woods beyond us.
Then voices, growing loud and angry. They were working their way right toward us.
I didn’t know what to do. Maybe we should run, I thought, but then Herman put a finger to his lips, calmly, telling me without words to stay put and wait it out. The mob wasn’t twenty feet from us when they stopped in the small clearing where moments earlier I’d seen the moon and we could hear them breathing hard and spitting and cursing. Someone moaned.
I peeked into the glare of their flashlights, then quickly jerked back behind the tree and made myself even skinnier. I tried it again, looking with one eye. They were gathered in a tight circle around someone I couldn’t see. Maybe there were ten or twelve men. They wore their white robes but didn’t have on the pointy hoods. I guess the formality out here in the woods wasn’t important at this final stage. I knew a little about the KKK, since I’d lived in Alabama all my life. But it was the first time I’d ever seen them in a gathering, doing it.
I heard a rough voice saying, “. . . is it, you sonofabitchin’ nigger faggot—” and then another one bellowed something deep I couldn’t quite figure out, something like “. . . not in God’s kingdom!—” or “. . . no home in God’s kingdom!—” Something like that, but either way managing to get God in there, like they had His blessing for what they were doing. Then the Klansman’s voice got lost in the surge of the forest and other ghastly sounds that hurt me to hear, the unforgettable sound of wood smashing against flesh.
I saw the faces of most of the men but didn’t recognize any of them. But there were two boys in the crowd that I did know. One was from school, Sugarman Cole, a smart but dangerous hood. The other boy, Leon Legget, was a redneck punk who didn’t even go to school but hung out with some of Lamar Junior’s delinquents. I’d seen him around. His daddy and uncles owned gas stations on the west side that served only whites. Made sure everybody knew it with signs saying, “Whites Only,” hanging right over the pumps so you couldn’t miss the message. Everybody knew they were high-up Klansmen, even when they were too mean and hot-tempered to be on the white citizen’s council or even accepted into the state KKK confederation.
I couldn’t see the Negro but I saw the rope go up and over a branch. It wouldn’t be long now.
Oh God, I thought, he’s going to die, a man’s really going to die! I tried to swallow a lump in my throat but it didn’t budge. I just held it. I looked at Herman again. He was mesmerized. Then he glanced my way, his opaque eyes wide and fearful. All of a sudden I had to pee something fierce; I thought I was going to puke, too. I’d never been so scared.
I looked away, up to the treetops and focused on the black sky where you could see some stars in the small window of blackness. I thought about the depth of that void, of how many planets there were beyond my vision and if there might have been creatures like us on those planets in those faraway solar systems who might be looking down on me, on us, and if right then they might be in the middle of some anarchy or cruel, unfair behavior too, like this angry mob. The wonderment of it kept me from puking but not from being sick over them hanging that poor guy.
They did it fast.
He hadn’t gotten to say anything because they’d already stuffed his mouth with something and put a hood on his head to cover up his bulbous eyes. Those terrible sounds came from two-by-fours, hard blows to his head and upper body. I got a quick glimpse of him between men. He didn’t take long to slump, thank God. I don’t think he knew when he got hung.
I glanced again at Herman and saw that he was going to collapse. The tears running down his face glistened in the glow of lights. He was trying hard not to gasp and he managed to send the gasps through his nose, making muffled, strangled sputtering noises, which weren’t too loud. I looked pleadingly at him, hoping I could show him how important it was right then not to lose control. He didn’t look back at me again, I think out of shame because he was crying and he didn’t want me to see what a sissy he was. But I didn’t think that at all. Herman was too crazy to be a sissy.
I think seeing him whimper saved me from breaking down. I had never seen anything so grisly ever before. I was pretty sure Herman hadn’t either.
Then all of a sudden, in an act of harebrained idiocy, Herman balked. He pushed off from his tree like he was starting a hundred-meter race. Oh, shit! I thought. There was nothing for me to do but take off too.
He was easy to keep in sight with his flashlight beam jumping around trees like illuminated monkeys. The mob had to see it too. I wanted to shout, “Keep the light to the ground, you moron.” I looked behind me and saw them coming, their lights wavering all around like the woods was on fire. The mob started screaming at us.
A hoarse voice rang out, “Hey, hold up. . . . Don’t you motherfuckers run on us, you know what’s good for you. You hear me? Hey, goddamnit!” The voice sputtered and vibrated from the man running.
I knew what was good for us and it sure wasn’t stopping, giving up. Maybe the threat in that voice motivated both of us to speed up cause we were getting ahead of the main body. The two boys stayed closer behind us. I knew how fast Sugarman Cole could run; I’d run against him in gym playing basketball, and he was fast.
Thicker woods slowed us down. Tree limbs dropped lower and the ground growth and vines grabbed at our ankles. It also slowed down our pursuers. They must not have had guns, since I didn’t hear any cock and no shots.
I made a decision to split off from Herman, thinking we stood a better chance that way because it might give us an edge when they slowed down a little deciding who would go after which one of us. All I needed was a few steps lead and I could climb a tree and get out of sight. I could climb fast as lightning.
There was no way to signal Herman; he was barrel-assing ahead. Considering how much shorter he was than me, he could run like hell. I split off when we hit an oak grove. Oaks spread out and left open space and I could get through with less light. They were easier to climb, too, plus you didn’t get sapped, like you did from pines.
I cut the flashlight and humped as quietly as I could and listened hard for footsteps, since I didn’t see light behind me. Somehow a low oak branch reached out and got me under the nose and I lost my footing and dropped my gun. I went down too. My eyes watered from the pain but I didn’t need to see anyway, only to listen, and I still heard nothing close by, although I saw fragments of weak lights and heard noises from the mob a distance away. But I didn’t dare turn the flashlight on to find my rifle since I knew one of the boys was on my tail.
I discovered something in that instant about myself that I hadn’t ever thought about before and probably wouldn’t have wanted to ever think about. Even if I’d had bullets left, I wasn’t going to shoot a person. Even the kind of murdering useless, redneck punks that were chasing me. All it took to learn that was to imagine what it would be like to fire a bullet into someone. I left the thought behind and climbed.
I could make out the form of the tree that’d knocked me down and grabbed hold of its limbs and didn’t stop till I had laid thirty or forty feet under me. Then I stopped to listen again. My heart went like a hummingbird’s; I couldn’t seem to get air and I thought I was going to fall. I braced myself between limbs in case I got too dizzy to hold on. I may even have blacked out for a moment because there was no sound in my ears or light in my eyes for that long.
Then I heard something. Then I saw lights below me and my gut started churning. I grew so scared saliva dripped off my lip but my throat was too dry to swallow. I hugged what was left of the core of the oak and tried to think of something that would put me somewhere else—on the white beaches of Panama City or in my uncle’s boat on the Coosa casting for surface bass.
There was rustling below. I waited and didn’t breathe. A voice that sounded like Sugarman Cole’s shouted, “You better keep your mouth shut, shitass. I got your gun. We’ll get you.”
The rest of that summer I hid in my room with the shade down and listened to my portable and watched the oscillating fan blow around the blistering air. I didn’t come out except to eat chili beans and crackers and deliver my papers, then eat supper and maybe watch TV shows with Mother till her toes stopped fidgeting. I didn’t think they had caught Herman since there was no word he was dead, but he never called. I was mad as hell at him for taking off like that when they would have never known we were there if he could’ve just stuck it out. I wouldn’t have this terrible death warrant hanging over me now and I would still have the .22 my grandfather gave me when I was seven.
Somehow I made it the whole way through ninth grade, both of us did, me and Herman, without telling a soul about the lynching and without the KKK sneaking around our windows late at night, grabbing us. I cooled to Herman for a while but finally forgave him. It helped that he gave me three of his sister’s Elvis singles I didn’t have. The Klan never found Herman’s gun or his portable, thank God. He told me he waited a week after it happened then he went back there and somehow found both those things. What balls! There’s no way I’d have gone back. He said he found no trace of the man’s body; they’d left nothing behind.
We seemed to be out of danger, as long as neither of us got loose lips. So I tried to put that whole episode to rest and just hoped Herman would never become a Klansman and turn on me.
Anyway, I still had other problems. Compared to the Ku Klux Klan ever on my mind, it didn’t seem like much of an issue that I was about to start high school without a girlfriend. But it was. Everybody had a girlfriend by the time high school rolled around; it was expected. I had made two girlfriends in the summer but complications had sprung up. Now it looked like I might lose both of them.
That wasn’t my only concern on the verge of high school. Gerald Henry would be waiting to fight me the first day of school. Gerald Henry led a westside gang. Last week I was riding my bike by the pool hall on West Tenth Street when his gang blocked me at the alley and he popped me on the nose. He got some blood but not much. Gerald Henry was half a foot shorter than me, shorter even than Herman, and he had to look up to tell me he was too busy to mess with me at the moment but would see me behind the school yard and rearrange my face then. I thought about thanking him for letting me off till later but that would probably have provoked him as sarcasm. Never mind what I was doing on the west side.
I still had three weeks to go; time to learn how to fight from my Negro friend who was a boxer, work on my tan, and with some luck settle things with at least one of those girls.
It was Wednesday and on Wednesdays the newspaper was thin and easy to fold, which made it easier to sling from the street. So I finished my route before three o’clock and pedaled fast to Scarborough Drug Store where I could sit at the fountain for a while in the air conditioning. I ate a packet of peanut butter crackers and sucked down a frosty chocolate shake while thumbing through a Superman comic book off the rack. I scoffed down the crackers faster than you could say Jiminy Cricket and grabbed another packet so I could get away with paying for only one. The soda jerk would get wise if you did it too often, so I only did it about once a week.
A man waiting at the pharmacy watched me and knew what I’d done; I know because he cracked a grin. But he didn’t care; he was making hurry-up gestures to the pharmacist, a pall of worry on his face. I got interested in him. He wore tennis clothes; everything on him was bright white, from the visor on his head to his unscuffed tennis shoes. He was tall and had big white teeth, which stood out to me more than his dazzling brightness. He caught me staring and I managed to return a crooked grin.
“How you doin’?” I said, stupidly.
“There’s a dog in the alley that someone must have hit.” He said it in a confidential way. I liked that he would confide in me, a stranger, a kid. “I’m getting some stuff to clean him up.”
“Can I see?”
“He’s a mess.”
I ran out the side door and saw the blood trail that led from the sidewalk out front. It meandered down the alley where the drips disappeared in the bushes at the back of the building. I pushed back the bushes and there was the dog. A mutt, not much to look at. It didn’t have a lot of color, mostly spotted gray with some white on the chest and a rusty brown front leg. A lot of red on his underside, but that was blood. I figured he had crawled into the shrubs to die out of sight. Dogs will do that whereas cats, when they finally die, just croak on the spot. You saw them all around, but hardly ever did you see a dead dog lying in the street or grass. The mutt breathed hard, in quick gasps. He was bleeding something fierce from somewhere underneath; I didn’t want to look. He yelped trying to wag his tail, which made me cringe and feel just awful.
The tall man appeared. “You can occupy him while I treat him, okay?”
I didn’t want to touch the bloody thing. When he rolled him, you could see guts and white bone. But I got down close to the wet nose and rubbed it with my own nose. The dog was real friendly. I rubbed him behind the ears and he laid his head on my knee. He seemed to have tears in his eyes, but that could’ve just been from all the blue there. He tried to lick me in the face. I let him.
The man knew what he was doing. He worked fast. I cringed again watching him stick a needle into the wound and sew up the big gashes in the dog’s stomach underneath the ribs and on its hip. Took him only about ten minutes. Maybe fifteen.
“You think his back’s broken?” I asked. “I mean he had to crawl, prob’ly to die. . . . Poor ole thing.”
“Most likely multiple fractures. I’ll take her in for X-rays and treatment. What’s your name?”
The question caught me off guard. “Uh, Sonny. What’s yours?”
“I’m Joe. Nice to meet you, Sonny. I better get going to the vet with our friend Pearl here.”
“Pearl? . . . Oh, I get it,” I said, flustered that he’d made fun of my accent saying ‘poor ole thing.’
He cradled the dog in his arms, getting matted blood all over his white tennis clothes, and he wore a collared shirt with the arrow logo on the chest, which meant it was expensive. I followed him around to the street where his car was parked, a brand-new looking T-Bird convertible. Yeah! It was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen, solid white with slick white leather seats trimmed in red and big white sidewall tires. He started to put the dog in the passenger seat.
“Wait a second,” I said. “Let me put some newspapers down first.”
He nodded and I spread a handful of leftover newspapers on the white seat. He gently put the dog in. There was no way that mutt was going to make it. Her head slumped and she didn’t move a muscle. I thought the dog was either asleep or already dead.
“Thanks for your help, Sonny.”
“Sure,” I said and watched him drive away fast, those salved ’56 cams rumbling and echoing off the asphalt.