When Shelby turned sixteen in early August, his parents bought him a truck, a five year old Chevy S-10 pickup of metalflake blue. Rather, they financed it. Paying for it was to be a joint effort between themselves and their son. Shelby had worked hard and saved his money all summer to meet his part of the payments during fall, when he would be playing football and could not work after school.
The State of Georgia had licensed him to drive and he was a legal part-owner of a neat little truck. So it was a bit embarrassing that on Friday before the Labor Day holiday weekend, he was stuck on campus after school without wheels. Kurt had borrowed the truck to do some work at the church, and had told Shelby to watch Ainsley after school, and to not expect him until nearly four.
Ainsley walked the five blocks to Verona High School from Cloverdale Elementary to wait with Shelby. A small black backpack for books and lunch was strapped to her shoulders. Her hair was in pigtails, and she had a pair of headphones across her head connected to a small radio and cassette tape player clipped to the waistband of her plaid capri pants. Shelby had compiled a tape of her favorite songs on his fancy component stereo outfit, and she listened to it every free moment.
Arriving at the high school campus, she went to her habitual meeting place with Shelby for circumstances such as this -- the school's outdoor dining area, a concrete slab about half the size of a basketball court, just off the cafeteria. It was covered by a fiberglass canopy against rain and noon-day sun and filled with rows of green plastic picnic tables.
She found Shelby with John Mark and Randy and a few of their friends in the shade of the canopy. A little farther away, there was another clump of boys she paid no attention to, except to surmise that they were also without wheels and waiting for rides.
Shelby and his friends were sitting or leaning on the tables speaking in the laconic, abbreviated language of teenage boys. At the moment, the subject happened to be football, and whether the Verona Patriots would be state champions again this year, and they all agreed that not practicing on holiday weekends wasn't a good idea, since the team needed all the practice it could get.
Ainsley stopped near Shelby and shrugged off her book satchel, letting it drop to the floor, and said, "Hey, Bubba."
Shelby pulled the headphones away from one ear, said, "Hey, brat," and let it snap back.
"You're so bogus," she said, rolling her eyes. She sat down crosslegged on the concrete floor, pulled a small, flat plastic box from her satchel and laid it on the concrete in front of her. It was her favorite obsession at the moment -- a paperclip jewelry kit. At least she wouldn't get bored waiting for four p.m.
"I thought everybody knew," Randy shot back. "He's off the team, in rehab."
"That is so lame," Wesley said. "Everybody knows athletics and dope just go together. NFL's full of drugs 'cause they work. Even the Deacon there," he nodded toward Shelby, "would find his game improving if he wasn't so straightlaced and, ah, anti-substance."
"I see what you mean," Shelby said with mock thoughtfulness. "Kinda the way you drinkin' strychnine would improve your personality."
Wesley snorted. "Strychnine is poison, bonehead. I'm talking about substances that enhance athletic ability."
"And rot your liver," Randy said.
"And cause dain bramage," Shelby added
"And play havoc with your cardiovascular, reproductive and central nervous systems," John Mark finished.
"Havoc with your reproductive system?" Wesley echoed. "You mean like having two-headed babies? Now, that's a Southern thang, iddinit?"
"Why don't you shut up, Bratcher," Shelby said testily. "You've been a pain in the butt ever since you got down here. What's is it with you yankees, anyway? Nobody invited you, but you come down here and slam us and spit on our hospitality--"
"Hey, Kincaid, my family's invitation came from Uncle Sam and the United States Air Force."
"Like I said," Shelby continued, "Nobody invited you here."
At this point, enough of the tone and conversation had penetrated past Ainsley's music to get her attention, and it sounded interesting, so she pulled the headphones from her ears and paused in her jewelry making to listen to the boy talk.
Wesley was staring at her brother, incredulous. "Nobody...? Nobody but America! But that's about what I'd expect from a bunch of racist hicks who already tried once to tear apart the greatest nation on earth."
"Yeah, yeah," Shelby said, "blah, blah, blah."
"Besides," Wesley said, bringing the conversation back on track, "One thing you rubes and rednecks ought to know by now is what causes two-headed babies. And it ain't dope." He glanced down at Ainsley who was gazing at him, wide-eyed, and brought his stare pointedly back to Shelby. "It's screwing your sister."
Wesley cackled, but if he expected everybody to erupt into laughter and derision with him, he was disappointed. When his own laughter died down, it was still and quiet under the canopy. The hot, lazy afternoon that had been laced with the barest undercurrent of excitement that often accompanies the beginning of a holiday weekend now hummed silently with a much stronger current of tension.
Randy closed his eyes and shook his head while John Mark looked at Wesley with an incredulous smile. "You just don't learn, do you, Bratch?"
They looked at Shelby and saw that his only overt reaction was to raise his chin slightly and blink a couple of times. They also recognized the expression on his face. They couldn't tell yet whether the situation would set him off, but this sort of comment, coming from Bratcher, certainly had the potential for it. They looked at each other, groaning inwardly.
If there was one thing they did not need right now, it was one of Shelby's Billy Jack moments. The Verona Patriots were going to need "The Cobra," their best wide receiver, the whole season. If he got suspended or kicked off the team for fighting before the first game, it didn't portend well for the season.
Shelby's losing his temper was not a pretty or admirable sight, nor was his agonizing Baptist remorse afterward, and it would just be better all around if they could deter him from doing something regrettable, like beating this arrogant yankee to a bloody pulp, no matter how deserved it would be. So, his friends monitored the situation closely and were prepared to jump on Shelby, pin his arms behind him, wrestle him to the ground, whatever it took, to keep him under control until his rage calmed.
They went on high alert when Shelby stood up and said, "Ainsley, stay put," and started walking toward Bratcher with exaggerated leisure. His eyes were glittering. John Mark and Randy stepped to each side of him, ready to jump him at any second. They were aware of how intimidating they looked to this pathetic yankee, the three of them advancing shoulder to shoulder, but there was no help for it, and besides, after all his years in Verona, it was time he learned to show some respect.
About half the distance there, Shelby glanced first at John Mark, then Randy, and they realized he was having a hard time keeping a straight face. He was not anywhere close to rage. It was questionable whether he was even angry.
Not one of his Billy Jack moments, then, but one of his Looney Tunes moments. Although he couldn't say it out loud in this situation, they'd heard it enough in the past, and knew exactly what he was thinking, in his best Bugs Bunny dialect...Dis could pwove to be fun!
So they fell back a step or two. Shelby kept up his saunter and didn't stop until he reached Bratcher and slightly invaded his space. In very hushed tones, he said, "Then if there is one thing my sister never has to worry about, it's having a two-headed baby."
|The Kincaid Siblings, Ainsley & Shelby, c. 1993|
"It was my honor you trashed, not hers. If you had trashed hers, you wouldn't be standing here now."
Bratcher recognized the past-tense threat in that statement, but couldn't decide whether it had expired or not, so he said nothing.
"Or maybe you would be standing, if my friends here helped me keep my temper long enough to remember something about you." Without taking his eyes off his quarry, he said, "Ainsley, c'mere a minute."
That was when Randy and John Mark knew sure and certain there was no possibility of a physical confrontation. Shelby would never have called her into the scene if physical violence was even remotely possible.
Ainsley didn't understand everything that was happening -- it was a boy thing -- but she knew full well some sort of contest was going on, and she knew without even thinking hard that Shelby was winning. Sandals slapping on concrete, she walked to him and said, "What?"
"Hold up your hand so Bratcher here can see it. Show him your fingers."
Uncomprehending but willing to help in whatever game her brother was playing, Ainsley went along, holding up her hand and slightly wiggling her fingers.
Shelby said to Bratcher with the exaggerated tone of explaining something to a small child or simpleton, "See, if you want to smear somebody's honor, you have to have a thing called moral authority. And my sister has more honor in her little finger than you have moral authority in your whole ...damnyankee ... ancestry."
He heard John Mark snicker softly behind him, and knew it would not set well with Bratcher to be laughed at by a Southern hick. Which made it all the more worthwhile. The indignant look on Bratcher's face was almost caricaturishly comic, and Shelby couldn't hold back his laughter. He took a couple of steps back to stand between his friends, pulling Ainsley back with him.
Then, in his normal voice, "I'd appreciate it if you didn't say things like what you just said anytime my sister's around. Really appreciate it, if you get my drift."
"Sure, Kincaid," Bratcher said. He had begun to sidle to the right, and toward escape, the moment Shelby stepped back. But he just couldn't help himself, couldn't leave well enough alone. His expression changed as contempt muscled out apprehension on his face. "You people are crazy. The inbreeding has made the whole bunch of you just ... crazy."
Copyright © 2013 - 2015 by Connie Chastain