Love Thy Neighbor

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A young boy learns what it means to be poor.

Submitted: November 30, 2016

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Submitted: November 30, 2016

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I was ten when I realized our family was poor.  It was September 18th, 1958 - three days after my birthday, which is the only reason I remember the date so good.  At the time we lived in Delbridge, aka Dirty Del, South Carolina right outside of Anderson. The only attraction of coming into town was to see the mine that had shut down before I was born.  I guess the miners that worked there were notorious for finding silver deep within the grounds.  The plaque that stood outside the pit was pathetic.  The three men that were carved into it looked like women and their smiles were about as real as Nixon sayin’ he wasn’t a crook.  And I didn’t know what the fuss was all about for comin’ to see that dump, the smell of oily coal still burned our nose hairs.  The town was packed with houses so tight you couldn’t even get a leg between ‘em.  Just 15 streets of busted windows, yellowing picket fences, Ms. Benett’s radio blaring Jailhouse Rock to cover up her husband’s drunken yelling around 4 pm.  None of that mattered much to me until the day my older brother Ronnie told me he got into a fight.

We were walking home from school, I was flickin’ a Yo-Yo.

“You remember Benji?”

I nodded. Benji was one of Ronnie’s best friends when they were in middle school.  They hung out all the time, played catch outside til they couldn’t see the ball no more, always showing off for the ladies.  They stopped hangin’ out the summer before high school started, but I figured it was just ‘cause Benji moved.

 “Well…he was being a real jerk today, Chase.  I need you to know that I didn’t just do it ‘cause I felt like it though.You hearing me?”  He snatched my Yo-Yo.  “I don’t want you thinkin’ I like to fight people now.  I just want to be honest with you if any of yours lil friends come asking you what happened.  There was a fight and I hurt him bad, but there was good reason for it, okay?”

I started thinking more about Benji than Ronnie then.  Benji had moved into a really nice neighborhood called Lanskendal after his father got a promotion in landscaping.  And at first, Benji was over a lot.  He told us that all the space around their house made him feel alone and that it was always really quiet.  But after a few months, I didn’t see him as much.  When I did, though, I barely recognized him.  He’d wear different button down shirts with a jacket and trousers.  But what I didn’t know at the time was that it wasn’t just his looks that had changed.

 

“I get it,” I said, even though I really didn’t understand.  I was in fifth grade and no one ever bothered me much about anything.  But Ronnie was my big bro and he tried hard to stay out of trouble for me, so I knew there had to be a reason.

We walked for a while, not saying anything.  I started kicking a rock, trying not to make a big deal about it or ask too many questions.  But he kept looking at me like he wanted to say sorry.  Like the time Aunt Nu Nu cracked a joke about my glasses and how they were too big for my head at Grandma’s house.  The whole car ride there I was feeling dumb about wearin’ them in front of people, but Ronnie told me I looked alright.  I believed him, and put them back on right before going inside.  It was goin’ fine until I saw Aunt Nu Nu and she announced to everyone how blind I was and how I had coke bottles on my little face.  Ronnie looked at me and mouthed “sorry” from across the room.  I was getting that same look as we turned onto our street.

I could see from the end of the road that Ma was outside on the front porch. It was a Thursday, so she was home early from work down at the diner.  I couldn’t help doing what I always did when I saw her; I started runnin’.  I ran passed Mrs. Wilson in that stupid purple jumpsuit she was always wearing while walking her ugly white dog that looks dead already, waved over at Vinny pushing his little sister Rosie on the swing set on the side of their house, saw the really old man who never talks that Ronnie told me not to talk to, and finally found myself running up the stairs into Ma’s arms.  Ugh, Thursdays were my favorite day of the week.

I was out of breath, but immediately noticed she had her pale yellow dress on, which meant we were going out to eat.  Her dangly earring snagged my shirt a little as she let me go, but I didn’t mind. I thought she looked pretty.  That’s when Ronnie walked up behind us.

“Hi, Ronnie.  You not feeling good? ”  Ma asked.

It was obvious that since Ronnie didn’t race me home or try to give Ma her usual hug that he was planning to tell her about the fight right then and there.  Ronnie never kept things from her. 

“I gotta tell you something.”

As soon as I heard that, I grabbed my bag off the floor, swung open the porch door, and went inside.  Ronnie may have been a good brother, but I knew Ma wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

 

I walked in and down the narrow front hall to see Ty curled up with my old blue blanket on the floor in the living room.  I tried hard to be quiet as I made my way to the kitchen for a snack, but accidently kicked one of his most annoying toys. 

HEAD, SHOULDERS, KNEES AND TOES, KNEES AND TOES

HEAD, SHOULDERS, KNEES AND TOES, KNEES AND-

I frantically searched for the off switch on that stupid thing, but Ty was already up and pointing to his eyes, ears, mouth, and nose within seconds.  He was the wild child little brother I wish I never had, but I guess Ronnie probably felt the same way about me.

“Chase Chase Chase! You is home now!  Where is Ronnie?”

“He’s outside talking with Ma, Ty. But we aren’t going to go out there right now.  Are you hungry?”

“No. You play cars with me?”

“I’ll play cars with you if you let me change you first, deal?”

Ty was a mess.  He had noodles in his curly brown hair, dried snot across his face, and it must’ve been a paint day at preschool or something cause he had blue all over his hands. I knew Ma and Ronnie were busy, and I was really hoping to make it to Roadhouse Grill for dinner that night, so I decided to take on Ty. 

Ty smiled up at me as I got the washcloth wet. He knew just as well as I did that we didn’t have to eat Ma’s terrible lasagna.

“Ty, what did you get into today?”

“Miss Lizzy let us paint!”

I acted surprised.

As soon as Ty’s face was decent and he actually had some clothes on over his Superman underwear, I heard muffled yelling.

“Ty, I know I promised I’d play cars now, but I’ll let you play with my trucks if you play alone for a while, okay?”

He twirled around so fast to go up to my room that he almost fell.

 I snuck back down the hall to the front door.  Through the missing bottom window, I could see and hear them if I stayed real low.  They were opposite one another on the porch, keeping their distance.

“I popped him in the face.  Right then and there.  He tried to take a swing at me, so I kneed him.  It all happened real fast.”

“Why though?”  Ma’s voice was holding back tears.

“What do you mean?”

“Why would you think that fighting him would change anything?”

“I was upset!  I couldn’t take it!  I couldn’t take that kind of ridicule! To put me, us, down like that?  Our family was disrespected and I was put to shame!  What kind of example would I be setting if I let that slide?”

“What kind of example are you setting now?”

There was silence.  Ma wiped her eyes and nose with her arm.  Ronnie leaned up against the railing of the porch. His head was turned away, but his feet were facing Ma still.

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for letting it get to me.  But it’s Benji.  Out of all the people who would say those things to me.”  Ronnie started crying.  It was the first time I had seen Ronnie cry.  I shifted awkwardly, so much so the floor squeak at bit but neither of them seemed to notice.

“He used to be my best friend. He knows you.  He knows Chase.  He knows Ty.  He knows what it’s like.  How can someone who used to live around here be so cruel?”  His tears soon settled to a gentle stream.

“Oh, baby”, Ma held Ronnie’s hand in hers, “that’s what life does to ya.  It makes you insecure.  It makes you feel like you have to prove what you got.  He moved outta here, sure, but he’s gotta face that he ain’t any better than anyone he’s makin’ fun of.”

 

I wasn’t following, but I tried hard to.

 

“You are a good boy, Ronnie. We all know it.  You just have to understand that as much as it hurts to take the high road, you must continue doin’ it.  Benji, or whoever else, will learn.”

“I know. I know this.  Ma?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t care that we are poor.  I don’t care that you can’t offer as much as you’d like to.  I don’t mind putting in the extra shifts to make ends meet.  I care about you, I care about this family. I just want you to know that.You are a really good Mom.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

 

It was then that I started to understand. I remember thinking though; we aren’t poor, are we? I turned around and went back into the living room.  It looked a lot smaller than before.  Stained carpet, sagging couch, no decorations.I peeked into the kitchen.  We had a table and a few chairs, an oven, a fridge.  Well, at least that’s okay, I thought.  At 10, I was trying to find the poor in our house, but what I hadn’t noticed then were the little things right in front of me.  The drawer full of coupons Ma had collected, that we never had adults over, that Ronnie worked way more than a 16 year old kid should, that he never played sports ‘cause we couldn’t afford the equipment, and that we never went out shopping for new clothes.  I didn’t know any of this was living poor, ‘cause it was all I knew.

I felt a knot in my stomach.  I didn’t know what to say or do.  So  I went to go find Ty.  I bear-crawled up the stairs, which I always did for some reason at home, and found him sitting cross-legged in the corner of my room, making the trucks collide into one another.He saw my shadow against the wall and turned around.

 

 “Chase! Be the bad truck!”

“I don’t want to be the bad guy, Ty.”

“Okay, you be the good guy! I’ll be the bad guy!”

“Can’t there just be two good guys?”

“No. There are always bad guys.”

 

I later found out that Ronnie had been expelled from school for a few days for the fight.  Benji was let off with a warning.  Even though I knew Ronnie was the one to actually get physical, I was surprised that the principal didn’t see how good of student Ronnie was and how he never got into any trouble besides this.I know now that the principal at the time also lived in Landskendal, and was neighbors with Benji. 

Benji and Ronnie never spoke to each other after the fight.  People assumed it was over a girl.  They both let that rumor continue because it was better than the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2020 Chloe Alex. All rights reserved.

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