by William Alton
My mom was a Neel of the Izard Neels. We were the people folks avoided in Izard’s one bar. We were the people folks whispered about over coffee. We were the kids in the principal’s office, the kids standing on the corner smoking cigarettes looking for a fight. My name was Billy Alton but I was a Neel and everyone knew it.
Being a Neel in Izard was often a burden. When you come from a family like mine, there’s always a history. My first day of kindergarten, the teacher called my name. Ms. Waters was old, the same age as my grandparents. No one messed with her. She’d been a teacher forever. She was the monster in the corner. I thought she looked a kind if slightly bent old woman. “Billy Alton,” she called.
Ms. Waters narrowed her eyes. “You’re Nadine’s boy?” she asked. Ms. Waters knew my mom, but then everyone knew my mom.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
I wanted to make a good impression. I wanted her to like me and I wanted the other kids to like me too. Ms. Waters frowned. “Are we going to have trouble?” she asked. I didn’t know what was happening. I was six, but Ms. Waters seemed to dislike me. She didn’t know me but she didn’t like me. I curled into my desk. Ms. Waters stared for a moment, just long enough for me to feel the air in the room get heavy, before moving onto the next kid.
At recess, I sat on the warm asphalt and watched the other kids running and screaming. They climbed and chased each other. At home, there were always people around. Aunts and uncles. Cousins. Someone was always saying something to me. This was different. No one sat with me. No one spoke to me. I sat alone, awkward and out of place.
It was nice being out of the house. I sat and watched the kids playing. Lotti Henderson came and sat with me, a skinny thing with wild white hair. “Billy,” she said. I remembered her from class. I remembered the way she looked at me when the teacher called my name. She smiled but she didn’t giggle. “Billy,” the girl said.
“Lotti,” I said.
“I know who you are.”
The Hendersons were a ragged bunch. They lived down the road from Grandpa’s place. Five of them shared a shotgun shack set in a stand of white oak surrounded by round hills with a little creek running through it. An outhouse sat at the bottom of the little valley next to the chicken coop. A couple of goats and a mangy dog shared a small patch. A small truck garden gave them vegetables for canning.
Heck Henderson was a little man. They had only the one pickup so Skinny Henderson stayed stuck at home while drove Heck to town every morning where he was a janitor at the school.
“That man knows how to work,” Grandpa said. Saying someone knew how to work was the best thing Grandpa could do. He saw the world through a lens of usefulness. If you were not of use, then you were not worth the attention. Heck Henderson, he tended the stills dotting the mountains around town. He let my uncles grow pot on his property. While Heck worked in town, Skinny stayed home. Not that staying home wasn’t work. She mended clothes and tended to the garden. She cooked and canned. She rose before the sun and milked the goats. She gathered eggs.
When the cotton came due or when the weed needed harvesting, Heck brought his family over to work the fields. Sometimes, of a Sunday evening, Heck sat on the porch with Grandpa and my uncles. They smoked and got slowly drunk, talking about their wars and their women. Late at night, Heck went off home to get some rest before the week started.
The Hendersons were poor folk. They never had a new thing in their lives. Clothes hung on their scrawny shoulders and narrow hips, patched and mended until there was nothing left to patch or mend. Being the youngest and the only girl, Lotti had plenty of physical protection. Anyone with a lick of sense knew better than to start shit with the Hendersons.
“You’re not mean at all,” Lotti said. Her dad came and took her hand. “Lotti, come with me.”
“Come with me.” Heck looked scared and angry at the same. He looked at me and he looked at Lotti.
“No,” he said. “You leave that boy alone.”
“He’s not mean.”
“Leave him alone.” Lotti climbed into the cab. She looked sad. Disappointed. Embarrassed. “Mr. Alton,” Heck said. “I hope my daughter didn’t bother you.”
“No sir,” I said.
He nodded. “Say hi to your Grandpa.”
Because I was an Alton but really a Neel, even grown men grew nervous when they spoke to me.
About the Author:
William L. Alton was born in Central Washington but spent most of his childhood in the Ozark Mountains. He started writing in the Eighties. Since then his work has appeared in Main Channel Voices, World Audience and Breadcrumb Scabs among others. In 2010, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published several books. One collection of flash fiction, Girls, two collections of poetry titled Heroes of Silence and Heat Washes Through, a memoir titled My Name is Bill and two novels: Flesh and Bone (2015) and The Tragedy of Being Happy (2019). He earned both his BA and MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Currently, he lives on Portland, Oregon where he works with at risk youth.