Here I am in Odessa, Texas, sitting in yet another straight-backed wooden chair studying the linoleum tiles that checkerboard across the dusty floor. I hate these new school introductions almost as much as the first Friday of every third month.
My father is a Traveling Ordnance Manager for Blazier Brothers Contracting out of Omaha and oversees the use of explosives in construction projects throughout the Southwest. Once a quarter, he heads back to Nebraska and returns with his next assignment. Reno, Amarillo, Wichita, and Tulsa, just to name a few. We’ve moved eighteen times in the last four years, staying two or three months in most places. Actually had six months in Gallup because the roadbed around Mentmore Mountain wasn’t cooperative.
We usually stay in furnished apartments in the rougher neighborhoods where the rents are cheaper. I can’t remember all the names of the schools I’ve attended. So, I just carry this beat up folder stuffed with transcripts from each.
School secretary tells me the principal’s ‘a nice man.’ They all say that.
The pebbled glass panel door opens and out walks one of the tallest men I’ve ever seen. Must be six-five, maybe six-six, wearing snakeskin boots and a bolo tie with a miniature steer skull at the neck.
“Yes, sir,” I reply, knowing exactly how this is going to play out.
“Welcome ta’ Roosevelt High. Name’s Ernest Clayton.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
Running his eyes down the transcripts, he says, “Looks like you’ve seen a lot o’ this country these past few years.”
“Yes, sir.” Having learned long ago these introductory meetings are mere formalities and the questions not really searches for answers, I just smile.
“Bet you’re good at geography, son.”
“Do my best, sir.” Appending that ‘sir’ goes a long way to smoothing whatever feathers I’ll ruffle with the inevitable “new kid” fight. Like clockwork, I’ve come to expect it; and, it always does.
Usually in the first two weeks, some local gets territorial or doesn’t like the way I look at his girlfriend. So, just like a renegade dog, I’m marked, cornered, and torn into. A Navajo kid in Gallup taught me some great footwork, which I often use to my advantage. Back in Topeka, a farm boy named Ned Peavler showed me how to crack a belt like a whip. Most times, I can usually wrestle my way out of trouble, but I’ve bloodied a nose or two.
Each of those altercations is dutifully documented in that folder and Principal Clayton doesn’t let them pass unnoticed. “Aaron seems ya’ had yaw’ share o’ disagreements in some o’ these places.”
Some? How about all?
“Here at Roosevelt, we strongly discourage problem resolution through physical means. However, if that fails, we have our own way o’ straightenin’ things out. Lunchtime Fridays, we set up a boxin’ ring out behind the auditorium and the disagreeing parties have three minutes ta’ work things out. Usually, do, but,” he leans over until his nose is inches from mine, “if not, they each go one minute with our gym teacher, Mister Noyes. Cures most of ‘em fo’ good. Understand?”
“Good. Now, we’re ‘expecting another young man startin’ today. Soon as he arrives, I’ll ‘company both o’ ya to yaw’ classroom.” He turns to the plump, copper-haired woman who watches from her desk across the room, “Lynette, buzz me when the other student arrives.”
So I sit, for what turns out to be eighteen minutes. At four minutes to nine, the door opens and in steps the other one. He has no manila folder, so I figure he’s a rookie. Maybe his first move.
“I’m here to go to school.”
“Your name?” the woman asks while scanning papers on her desk.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the secretary replies and cuts him a mean glance over the top of her glasses.
As the new kid walks past me, I notice something familiar about him. Damned if I can figure out what.
“You bring your paperwork?” Miss Lynette asks.
This kid’s got to be new at this ‘cause he forgets the ‘Ma’am’.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“I said got no papers,” he repeats.
Miss Lynette looks at me, then back to Gates. Her eyes make clear this isn’t going to be pleasant for him.
“Wait here for Principal Clayton.”
Idiot does it again. I hear that buzzer clear through the closed door of the principal’s office. A large shadow fills the glass pane while the kid stands smack in the middle of the floor. His shoes are at least a size too big, probably a pair of his daddy’s old ones - heels all rounded, no shine. Even those green mechanic’s pants he wears sag on his skinny-ass frame.
“Mister Gates. Glad you could join us.” Principal Clayton’s tone is not welcoming at all.
As Mr. Clayton strides past the secretary’s desk towards Gates, I hear her whisper, “Oiler.”
Doesn’t mean anything to me, but it triggers what escaped me earlier: oil, just like my Pa pours in the engine of his truck or how a filling station smells on a hot Texas afternoon.
“Mister Gates, would ya’ please come with Mr. Wheatley and me to yaw’ classroom?”
From nowhere, Principal Clayton’s hand slices through the air and snags a fistful of the kid’s greasy hair, lifting him clean off the floor. The kid spins like a weather vane in a thunderstorm. “At Roosevelt School, students exhibit respect. You will address all faculty and school personnel properly. Understand?”
“Good.” Principal Clayton releases Gates but keeps his hand on the kid’s shoulder. This is going to be an interesting few months.
The usual stares greet Gates and me as we make our way to the two open seats in the back of Mrs. Braselton’s classroom. Gates gets the one near the supply closet, I get the window seat. At least I can watch the freight trains heading west.
After some admonishment from Mrs. Braselton for the class to get back to work, I notice the students nearest Gates start twitching; catching each others’ eyes; tapping feet in code. A note goes from a brown-haired girl to a small blonde. An olive-skinned girl with the blackest hair this side of the border keeps sneaking peeks at me. She smiles once. All the others strain to check out Gates, then whisper among themselves. His odor gets stronger as the sun climbs that cloudless sky and the temperature rises.
By noontime, the whole room swells with an invisible vapor of petroleum. Even Mrs. Braselton pushes open the window alongside her desk and swings the door to the hallway wide. At lunch, no one says anything except a quick, “Hey,” before moving on. I don’t mind; happens all the time and in every school. Gates doesn’t seem all that bothered either.
The food here isn’t bad. Ham sandwich with margarine on white bread, applesauce, and cold milk. Sixty cents. Gates only has the applesauce for a dime. We find a small spot of shade beneath a scraggly Cedar Elm.
“First day, huh?” I ask.
“Where ya’ from?”
Geez, this kid’s a real talker.
“Texas?” I press.
“Yeah.” He squints. “You?”
“Name it, I been there.”
“My pa travels a lot. I and my mom go with him.”
“Oh,” Gates shrugs.
“What’s your pa do?” I ask.
Like I had to guess.
“Yeah. What’s your name?”
“Rusty. But, folks call me RJ.”
“Rusty? Rusty Gates?” I laugh.
“Oh yeah?” He’s on his feet.
I know the stance and we face off for a few seconds, sizing each other up like mongrels about to scrap over a bone. Finally tell him, “Ain’t lookin’ for no fight.”
“Good,” he grunts.
Nothing happens and the tension fades.
“Where ya’ lived before here?” Gates asks.
“Came down from Boulder. You?”
Gates scores the dirt with those oil-soaked oversized work shoes. “Mostly ‘round El Paso.”
“One of the few places ain’t been yet.”
“Y’ain’t missin’ much.”
The half-hour lunch period ends and the rest of the school day passes without incident. Don’t even notice the smell that much anymore. Gates and I make our way out the south exit when five locals set themselves square between us and the street.
“Hey, oiler. Everybody home stink like you?”
Gates says nothing.
“Hey oiler, I’m sayin’ you stink and I bet yaw’ momma does too. Got any slippery sisters?” The chorus cackles behind their leader’s challenge.
My fists ready as Gates’ hands tighten into knots. Quicker than a Texas twister we’re mixing it up. Punches, kicks, headlocks. You name it, we’re doing it. Those Navajo moves come in handy. Have the last one face down in the hardscrabble when Gates grabs my shirt collar, “Come on. Let’s go!”
Somebody yells, “Principal Clayton!”
I trail Gates down streets unknown to me. We cut through an alley; duck across a feed store loading dock; and then, out through Jamison’s Lumber Yard before slowing. My sides feel ripped open. I can’t breathe. “You okay?” Gates asks.
Bent over and unable to speak, I nod.
“Wanna wait it out at my place?”
Another nod. We walk a half mile or so along the Southern Pacific tracks until we slip through a hole in a chain link fence surrounding a truck yard.
“Over there,” Gates points to an old rusting green tanker parked against the fence. I follow him. We climb the ladder at the back of the tanker; make our way across the narrow catwalk up top; then, Gates stops at the first of three open hatches. Peering in, he yells, “Ma?”
“Rusty?” echoes back.
“Come on.” He guides me towards the manhole. My face gives away my uneasiness. “It’s okay,” he says.
“What about the oil?”
“Ain’t carried any in years.”
Gates goes down the opening, his arm waving me to follow. I look into the gaping hole. The smell nearly knocks me over. “Come on,” he calls. I take a tenuous step, then another, followed by another until the bright Odessa horizon disappears, replaced by the black inside the tanker. My eyes try to adjust to the new darkness.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice breaks from the shadows.
“Hello,” I reply.
“Ma, this is Aaron.”
“Hey,” she says.
My eyes burn. But, I make out a figure crouching near my leg. I’m barely able to stand up without losing my footing on the slick curved surface.
“Over here, Aaron,” Gates calls.
“On your left. Watch the step.”
The dimness begins revealing shapes. I see a ledge on which I put my foot. My face is sweating. Air is hard to come by as I stand on the wooden platform. A woman about my Momma’s age, maybe a bit older, sits across from me. She offers a smile and her hand.
“Ma’am,” I swoon.
“Give yourself a minute, you’ll adjust. Sit a bit.”
I practically fall down, my ass hitting the wooden floor hard. Next thing I know, Gates turns on a mechanic’s drop light; the cord running down below the floorboards. One of them small oscillating fans spins next to him. Barely makes a difference.
Souvenir magnets shaped like cowboy boots and pineapples and stars hold pictures cut from magazines and newspapers against the curved walls. The floor is plywood strips covered with pieces of carpet. His momma sits on a hassock, straw stuffing leaking from one side. A sleeping bag lay against the baffle partition. Feel like I’m in a submarine.
“You live here?” I blurt out.
Gates’ quick defense of his momma touches my heart because I know that emotion well. I live it every day. Besides, this place ain’t all that different from those shabby rooms we rent.
Sweat runs down my face and the salt stings my eyes. My shirt sticks to me as if I waded through a flooded arroyo. The heat and the stench undermine my consciousness. I feel wobbly.
“Better get some air,” Gates says.
Gates pops open a small hatch below and a rush of hot Texas air washes over me. Despite its high temperature, I’m relieved, if only for a moment.
“Rusty, think you better get your friend outside ‘fore he faints dead away.”
Somehow I find myself lying on the ground beneath the tanker. My eyes still sting; I stink of oil; and, I’m gulping air like it’s water.
When I get home, my Momma says I reek and makes me strip off every piece of clothing ‘cause she’s gonna wash ‘em in the sink with Octagon soap. I stand in the shower for nearly fifteen minutes and that oil still coats my skin.
Pa is out on a job, so Momma and I have fried chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner. Then, I stroll over to the truck yard to hang out with the other Roosevelt newcomer. But, that old green tanker is gone like it was never there.
Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in multiple literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include the Indiana Voice Journal, The Copperfield Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Visitant, Ink In Thirds, Twisted Sister LitMag and the L’Éphémère Review. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of Paterson New Jersey’s textile industry.