Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Scratch Loses His Daddy

His first day back after the funeral, Spencer’s fourth-grade teacher walked him out to us on the softball field and said something we couldn’t hear to our P.E. teacher. 

Then the P.E. teacher, with Spencer by his side, called us all over and told us, “Y’all know Spencer’s daddy just died and he’s having a hard time of it. We all gonna need to be special nice to Spencer and hep him through this. So y’all gonna need to buddy up with him and be his friend. Be nice, now!” 

We must’ve mumbled some “sorries,” I remember some sound like that, and we might’ve approached him, but we wouldn’t have touched him.

Spencer was uniformly fat, no real bulges for belly or butt, just a fat chest and gut and arms and butt and legs, and thick fat ankles and fat white feet. His face and arms were pale and pasty, with just a trace of a green tint, and his skin had a damp, repellent softness. He had thick, coarse, curly, unwashed hair that stood up on his head like dirty sheep’s wool. We only ever touched him by accident, and his dad’s death would not change that.

Spencer was excused from playing softball that day and he went over and stood somewhere behind the chicken-wired backstop and lowered his head and began to rock and weep, his arms by his side, his feet planted on the ground. 

When Freddie asked him to join us, Spencer looked up at him with wide-eyed terror and grief, his head nodding with his rocking body, and his grief became quietly audible, a raspy moaning, but he said nothing, so we left him alone.

It was pretty easy for us to leave Spencer alone. He had been strange from the first day we’d seen him, whether, as it was for some of us, the first day of school at Pinetta Elementary, or, for others, at his very old dad’s small general store in Hanson, where the old coot used him almost as a mascot, a kind of trained bear to amuse his few customers. Folks were amazed, for example, that young Spencer could chew a wad of tobacco and not get sick, and expertly spit it, even before he was school age. 

When he wasn’t chewing tobacco, Spencer, with his dad’s permission, plundered the store’s ample candy supply, again amazing the customers with the number of Baby Ruths he could down at a single sitting. His dad trained him in drawling, backwoods, homespun humor, more specifically one-line punchlines to scripted questions: “Hey, son, reckon how many dead people in the cemetery over yonder by the church?” Spencer would grin, wait a second for effect, then reply: “’Bout all of ’em, I ’spect!” 

But before his dad died, he was sort of one of us. He would talk with us in his unnaturally deep voice and he was good for some laughs, not all of them at his expense. Mainly, we liked to hear and watch him laugh. His large gray eyes would grow even larger, his big mouth would open wide to reveal his rotting teeth, and out would come this braying sound.

In P.E., he pretty much stunk at every exercise and every game, but, until his dad died, he tried, sort of, and he’d chuckle at his failure – a chuckle that rumbled in his thick chest -- rubbing his hands up and down his pelvic bones, as he prepared to try again.

But after his dad died, Spencer wasn’t one of us ever again.

The second day after the funeral, Spencer got off the bus and walked to a spot where there were no students and resumed his quiet rocking. He looked like he had stepped on a nail but wouldn’t move his feet to step off of it. He made no noise, but shed some tears. 

When the bell rang, he went to class and sat alternately staring out the window or up at the ceiling, rubbing his hands on his thighs. At recess, he found a place where no children were playing and he stood there, feet planted, hands by his side but not in his pockets, and he rocked, looking like some nervous fat kid waiting for a bus he truly dreaded boarding.

Over the coming days and weeks, his routine never changed. Not a grief counselor was to be found at Pinetta Elementary in 1960, so we all handled the matter our own way which was to leave him alone, to give him plenty of room once he’d picked his spot and began to rock and, we supposed, to grieve. And the days came and went.

Finally, there was a change. Probably, we figured, due to parasites or poor hygiene, he began to scratch his ass while he rocked. After a while, a nickname was inevitable, first spoken with quiet chuckles among ourselves: Scratch Ass. 

After about a month, all of us – students, teachers, lunchroom ladies, principal, bus drivers, the black janitor – told him behind his back to get over it, your dad’s been dead for a long time now, move on and deal with it, and having given him time and space to work through however many stages of grief existed in 1960, we brought him back into the normal world of elementary-school playgrounds by calling him Scratch Ass to his face. This met with no resistance, his face registering neither more nor less terror than it had been since his dad died.

As time went by, having reestablished our relationship with Spencer by renaming him, we made his new moniker more socially acceptable by dropping the Ass. Now, he was just Scratch. About that time, we even lured him back into our softball games. Because he was an inept fielder even when not grieving, we put him in the usual loser spot, right field. 

He would trudge out there with his glove, then begin to rock, and if a ball were ever hit in his direction, it rolled past him to the fence while he continued to rock, and the centerfielder would race over and fire the ball back toward the infield. We would have to yell at Scratch to come in between innings.

Scratch never changed, as far as I can remember. He never rejoined us and never did that braying-donkey laugh of his and never again talked to us in that deep rumbling voice. His rocking presence became as much of a playground fixture as that huge sycamore tree with the dinner-plate-sized leaves that in the fall would drift over and carpet the basketball court.

Scratch and his rocking became an unchanging, reliable part of our environment, another memory of childhood crammed in with polio vaccinations and Halloween carnivals and last days of school and the intoxicating smell of mimeograph ink. 

At some point – though I have no knowledge of it – Spencer must have grown up and moved some place, got a job, maybe even had a family. I grew up, moved far away from Pinetta and became a teacher, and for decades Spencer didn’t exist for me at all.

Recently, though, one of my beloved students lost her dad, only 42, to a heart attack.

One day, as I carried her grief with me on a long walk, a door in my memory opened up, and Spencer came back, rocking and weeping, his tear-stained face wracked with shock and terror, stranded on an island of sorrow, while I watched from a distance.

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