If he didn’t have such a reputation for being crazy, all the boys in school would’ve wanted to recruit Cal Roberts to the basketball team. As it turned out, Cal was more interested in reading magazines. I’m not sure why he became my friend. Maybe it he sensed that we shared a similar nature—we loved words.
Raised in southern Louisiana, he told me how his auntie screamed a lot to relieve the pressure on her sinuses, especially during the spring. In constant discomfort, she made it a point of finding fault with him, a gangly boy with skin the color of polished cypress. I thought it was from all those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he ate.
Cal was her sister’s son who had died quietly one afternoon of a heart aneurism when he was younger and here he was fourteen and cleaning out her refrigerator with his big teeth that constantly gleamed at her in derision.
His aunt had dental problems. Of course, it didn’t help that the town’s dentist didn’t believe in administering Novocain to his few Black patients whom he believed could withstand pain better than his white clientele; at least that’s what he told everyone. I just thought he was cheap and didn’t want to be called a racist. She screamed endlessly, which is exactly when Cal began babbling gibberish; even the cat in the house, named Rudolph after Santa’s reindeer, bailed through a hole in the screen door, and scrambled almost as fast.
In a certain sense, babbling was Cal’s way of bailing, but he was actually reciting, word-for-word and sometimes backward, paragraphs from magazines in the dentist’s office that he had memorized while waiting for his auntie to emerge from his chair. In fact the dentist saw in the boy’s gleaming teeth, a future customer, and with this in mind, allowed Cal to bring home a variety of magazines that included: Alabaster Statues of the South, Fan-Tail Fishing Figurines,and Quilter’s Guide to Literature. All issues were at least four years old and on a variety of esoteric subjects that library patrons had decided to do without. Cal took it one step further. Voracious for more material, he visited the local library, small as it was, to see if he could increase his bounty of magazines.
We were in junior high school and in the same Biology class trying to remember the difference between metacarpals and proximal phalanges of the human skeleton. Our science teacher, Mr. Ramsel, explained how this could open up a door to becoming a doctor or nurse.
In the meantime, Cal demonstrated his mastery of discarded subject matter. “Turner, Did you know that the Tirenshia Worm from the rainforest of Brazil can grow under the right circumstances to a length of one and half feet?”
That sounded like no worm, but a snake to me. “Nope,” I said.
On our walks home together, he taught me that if a person knew what they were talking about, other people would listen. But his blabbing got out of hand, which forced me to devise a plan to shut him up for at least for five minutes.
I decided to become a minister. After all, it was a family vocation and I didn’t want to become a doctor especially if it meant memorizing the names of bones. Summertime we sat on my mother’s screened porch and dared the mosquitoes to bite us.
“Hey, Cal. Did you know that the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years?”
He seemed unimpressed. Instead, he ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “What did they use for water?”
I stalled. “I’m glad you asked that question.” Summers in southern Louisiana melted us into sweating lumps.
“They must’ve gotten pretty thirsty.” He placed half of the sandwich inside his shirt pocket.
Back then I was a pudgy kid and suddenly felt stupid in addition to being fat. I knew they didn’t open the refrigerator and take out a bottle of water.
“The Bible’s a big book.” I fanned through the pages of the volume to demonstrate my point. “I wouldn’t know where to find the answer. Plus, the print is small,” I said, convinced that the answer could be lurking between verses where I couldn’t find it. Cal suggested we go to the library.
“I can ask my father.” He was the minister of the local Baptist church that sat in the middle of downtown that was exactly three blocks long. If he didn’t know what the Israelites did to slake their thirst, I figured no one would.
“Why ask him when you can find out for yourself?”
I wanted to tell Cal it would be easier, but didn’t. I knew he was trying to help me become an authority of all things biblical the same way he was of magazines.
My father, a large man whose stomach served as padding between him and the pulpit, was pleased by my sudden interest in scripture. Heretofore, I had been a mediocre student. I was an only child and knew that I had been a searing disappointment. All the males in my family had become ministers, invited to lead prayer services and eat dinners throughout the parish. From inside my room, I overheard him and my mother discuss how I had finally been saved. But my father didn’t realize that my most pressing questions were not about scripture, but about Cal; I realized that if he had become my best friend, and if everyone thought he was crazy and that he and I now spent more time with each other than with anyone else, that made me crazy by association. Right?
“Turner, today we’re going to the library.”
“No way,” I said, fox-trotting around him. “I have other things to do.” I lied of course, but it was a Saturday and I figured I could use the time to put air inside my bicycle tires.
He arched an eyebrow, a talent he reserved for special occasions. “I’m leaving, but if you want to sit on your sacroiliac,” and he spat on the sidewalk in disgust, “I don’t give a shit.”
I could feel the stain of sin inching toward me. “All right,” I said. “I’ll meet you there.”
The library was next to Fiesta Party House, two rooms owned by my mother’s brother where he sold milk, coffee, sugar, flour, chopped beef, sausage, bread, cigarettes, liquor and a tray of fried chicken coated in oil. There was a bathroom in the back without toilet paper, and more importantly, a candy and chewing gum display right near the door. It was lunch-time; the candy was a magnet that caught our eyes, but we managed to yank ourselves free past the store and into the library. Mrs. Dunn sat behind an oak desk. There was a fan above her head that moved the heat around.
“You come to look at magazines, Cal?” He was a frequent visitor. She put down her crossword puzzle.
“No, M’am,” he said. I figured I’d let Cal do all the talking. “We want to know about the Israelites.”
“Haven’t you come to the wrong place?”
“M’am,” I figured I’d rescue him. “You see Cal and I were talking on my mother’s porch the other day and wondered what the Israelites drank in the desert so we figured we’d come here to find out.”
Mrs. Dunn banged her fist on the oak desk. “Dirkson Turner. Why don’t you ask your daddy or your uncle?”
Now here was a question I could answer. Cal poked me his elbow and let me know it was my own skin to save.
“Because,” I said and then started again, “because my father is a Baptist and my uncle an Episcopalian. I don’t want them to argue.”
Her eyes fluttered. “In that case, my son, be your family’s Daniel. Now scram and leave me alone with my crossword.”
We went outside to the street and began walking. “Great,” I said. “Now what?” I wanted to know how to escape the tyranny of my family, several adults who watched my every move. I prayed for a brother or a sister to distract them. But right then, Cal almost knocked me inside to the candy display of the Fiesta Party House.
“Cripes! Why did you do that? It wasn’t my fault if she wouldn’t give us an answer.” I’d already decided there was no way I was going to get my uncle and father involved in this. It was hard enough to get them to sit at the same table. Forget about the Israelites and the desert. They could wonder around and dig wells for all I cared. “I’m going home.”
He reached out with one of his long arms and grabbed the back of my shirt, spun me around, his eyes glittering like the sun had signed a lease to stay there. “You don’t understand. We can go to Baton Rouge!”
“What are you saying, Cal? You’ve got me in enough trouble. What if old Mrs. Dunn says something to my father or my uncle?” I could see them at church together talking in the corner, Mrs. Dunn’s hand shielding her mouth.
“We can go to the library in Baton Rouge,” he said. “We’ll ask them there. Plus, I bet they have lots of magazines.”
He sat me down on the bench in front of the grocery and pleaded, “No, Turner. Listen to me.”
–to be continued