This story is somewhat based on a true event that I always wanted to tell but was afraid it would depict the neighborhood I grew up in a bad light. I love that old neighborhood. It was such a great place to grow up, full of wonderful, strangely unique individuals, a great bunch of friends, and a whole lot of things that a kid should and shouldn't do. I never had any real problems back then; those type of problems didn't begin until I crossed over Branson Avenue and started going to junior high school on the other side of town.
One of our neighbors back then had been a snake-handling preacher in Alabama before moving out west. Obie Dunworth was still kind of a preacher I guess, but he had toned it down quite a bit. He told my dad that that the snake fondling racket didn't play out too well in California. Obie had the same type of build as the guy who played Daniel Boone's side kick in the old TV show starring Fess Parker, skinny legs but kind of bulging in the belly area. He belted his pants way up high right across his belly button, made it look like the equator, dividing the bulge into two equal parts like it did. One day, I was outside bouncing a tennis ball off the back wall of the house, and he called me over to the back fence where he had two small wooden sheds both about 10 feet by 10 feet, one red and one blue, in the southeast corner of his yard about twelve feet apart forming an area where he couldn't be seen from the road. My dad parked his big, white Chevy 3/4 ton truck back in the north east corner of our yard, so standing next to the fence made me kind of hard to see too.
"Mornin there, Danny, Come on over here, son; I got something I want to show you. I sent my grand-son Donnie to go fetch it out my truck."
"Morning, Mr. Dunworth. Ya know I been meaning to ask you a question about them snakes you used to handle back there in Alabama. How come they didn't bite you when you picked them up?"
He looked at me like the last thing he wanted to do was talk about them snakes; I could tell he was a little nervous about something, but he decided to humor me.
"That was the whole point of it, sonny boy. You reach down in that there box and pick one or two of them snakes up, and if they didn't sink them fangs in ya, it meant you were being protected by the Holy Spirit."
"That's what was puzzling me. Let's say, you didn't reach down in that box, well, the snake couldn't have bit you either, doesn't that mean you was being protected before you reached down in there."
His face squeezed up together and his eyes got real narrow like he was mad at me for something. Fortunately for me, his grandson Donnie, who all the kids called Donnie Dumbass because he was more than just ordinary dumb, came around the corner of the garage struggling to carry a big card box full of something.
I kept looking at him waiting for my answer, so Mr. Dunworth finally said, 'Yes, I guess it does, but it's the temptin of the devil that's impotent in the sitchiation; you givin Ol Luke a chance to hurt ya, and God said no, you can't hurt none of my chiren." I guess the answer satisfied him cause he quit talking and went and fetched that box off a Donnie, brought it over to the fence and held it up high enough for me to look inside and see the contents. He then told Donnie to go tell his grandma to cook breakfast for him. Donnie didn't seem happy about it but scurried away anyway because he knew his grandpa would backhand his ass if he didn't.
"That there's what they call a whole case of Ripple wine, boy. It's good stuff.Twenty four unopened bottles of it. I heard tell that you kids love this stuff, and I'm willing to part with for only a dolla on the bottle."
I looked over the fence and sure enough there 24 green bottles staring back at me. He was right too, us young really did like that stuff because it was cheap, and you could pass it around and drink it right out the bottle. I fished around in my pockets to see what I had on me, "I only got $12, Mr. Dunworth, cash money. That way I won't have to go see if I could get a loan from my daddy."
There's was no way my Dad was going to give me $12 to buy wine over the back fence, and Mr. Dunworth knew it, but he also knew that he didn't want my Dad, who was a deacon in the Holier Than Thou Children of the Savior Baptist Church, to know anything about the transaction that was going on. I guess that was because it was like they was in some kind of competition or something. (My dad's church really didn't have that name either. My friend Richard put that adjective on the front because every-time we asked a grown-up a theological question, the answer came back at us with lecture about how morally superior we Southern Baptists were compared to other Christian sects.)
Like I said, Mr. Dunworth had given up his snake handling ways by then and joined the plainly named but still stylistically outrageous 6th Street Baptist Church. They not only talked in tongues there but put it out on the loudspeaker so the whole neighborhood could hear the chatter which was being backed up by two guitars, a drum set, a trumpet and a saxophone. It sounded kind of like if John Coltrane and Miles Davis were improvising a call to prayer using a passel of starving cats for the chorus.
Obie wasn't real happy bout my counter offer, but he thought about it for a minute before blurting, "Give me that $12, boy. I reckon it didn't cost me nuthin in the first place, and $12 is $12." I handed him a wad of crumpled bills, and he handed me the box over the top of fence. It was pretty unwieldy at first, and I almost dropped the box before I got a handle on how to deal with the load. As I toted it to where my car was and popped the trunk open, I was softly singing the song Ripple by the Grateful Dead,
"Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men."
I made sure my mom wasn't looking out the window, put the box in my trunk and slammed it shut.
I went back behind the house to toss the tennis ball some more. I know that some the neighborhood adult's used to look at me like I was crazy because I was still tossing that tennis ball and pretending I was playing baseball, but it was my stress relief. From the time I was small, I'd be out there pretending to be a San Francisco Giant. Sometimes I would be Juan Marichal with that high leg kick, sometimes I'd be Gaylord Perry throwing knuckleballs, and sometimes I'd be my hero Willie Mays making a throw from center field. It was pure escapism, and it always helped me to forget my troubles for a while.
I was in the middle of my wind-up when I heard someone singing over the fence in a wobbly voice that kind of sounded like whoever it was had been crying.
"Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves."
I went to investigate, looked over the fence and there was Donnie Dumbass, Obie's grandson, pants to his ankles, squatting and taking a crap behind his grandpa's garage. I tried to avert my eyes real quickly and get out of there, but it was too late."
"Hey, Danny! I want to ask you somethin."
I only looked enough to see the top of his head, "What you want to ask me, Donnie?"
"How bout selling me them bottles back?"
I laughed, "What are you, dude, ten? Twelve?"
"I'm twelve, but that don't mean nothing. I can handle myself."
"It's a big no, Donnie. I ain't selling no wine to no kid!"
"Come on, Danny. I thought you was a cool cat."
"I am. But I'm too cool to get caught selling alcohol to a minor."
Suddenly, his head appeared above the fence. He walked toward the fence buttoning up his pants. His eyes were red liked he had been crying about something. I figured his Grandpa had hit him for something. Donnie always looked like a shabbier, hillbilly version of that dude on the Mad magazine covers. He had big grin which revealed a mouth full of yellow teeth that had clearly never been introduced to a toothbrush.
"We got ourselves a deal, Danny?" He stuck his hand over the fence.
"Get yo damn hand out my face, boy! Did you even wipe your ass?"
"I sure did! Look, I used that old sock over there."
I swear to God, I tried my best not to look, but before I could stop myself I stole a glance over the fence, and sure enough, there was one of those white athletic tube socks with the two red rings on top sitting in the middle of a huge pile of Donny Dumbass shit.
Later that night, my friend Golly-Gee had a party at his parent's house. The parents were gone to Pismo for the week-end and he had invited a few people over. I took the case of wine bottles and, sure enough it made me into the bonafide hero of the evening. Golly and I went outside by the fire-pit to smoke a joint, and it was there I told him about the incident with Donnie.
"Damn it all-to-hell, Danny Wilson, I could've went my whole life without that damn image in my head! Now, I'll never be able to get it out of there. Why in God's holy name did you tell me that?"
"Sorry, man. It was just much too big a thing for me to keep it to myself."
"Don't forget, you told me when you caught your cousin Rascal masturbating in your daddy's tool shed.
I knew Golly pretty well, and I knew he was going to make the point that it wasn't a fair trade, but right before he started, he stopped cold, threw up his hands, and blurted, "All right. we're even. But understand, this wipes the slate clean, and don't ever tell me nuthin like this ever again."
I was going to say okay, but there was something else I had to get off my chest. "Golly, I don't know how to say this, but there's more to the story." I paused to get my thoughts in order before I told him, "I told ya, I didn't look for more than a second, but in that briefest of moments when I peeked over that fence, it sure looked like Donnie had a golden halo around his head."
Golly, a tall, thin young man with long, brown hair, looked at me with his face all screwed up like he had just bit into a lemon. The look told me that he suspected that I was smoking some of that stronger stuff like our friend Rambo Jones had broke out when he got back from his trip to Arkansas the previous summer.
"Golly, I swear on your Granny's mustache I ain't lying. It was there. A circular golden glow, and there's more to the story. When I saw that one, dingy white sox sitting on that top of that ugly little pile of excrement, I had myself a moment."
"Yeah, an epiphany, a sudden flash of intuition."
"I know what an epiphany is, Danny. Remember I had one myself when I finally got Donna Knowles to show me her breasts. It was a feeling so strong I sank down to my knees and started singing Hallelujah."
"That ain't nothing near what I'm talking bout. That's a whole different thing, remember when Donna walked into church that day and Preacher Preacher started stuttering?"
"Do I! My Grandma thought he was talking in tongues and jumped out in the aisle and started dancing. My God, I thought I was gonna pee my pants."
After laughing till my ribs hurt, I regained my composure and went on telling the rest of the story. "I swear, Golly, I suddenly understood the relationship of the event of Donny sitting there in a squatting position to the totality of the infinite universe. Not only that, I suddenly knew that no matter whatever had happened in all of previous history of the human race, me looking over that fence and seeing Donnie squatting there was destined to happen."
"Let me get this straight. You saying that if somehow, one of Donnie's direct paternal ancestors had got eaten by a bear during his family's passage over the Cumberland Gap, you would've still looked over that fence and saw him squatting there."
I nodded without saying a word and handed him the joint. He took a big hit, coughed a few times, and handed it back."
He kept on, "You saying that if Donnie's great, great, great grandma had fell off a cliff into the freezing water of a lake in Alaska where none of Donnie's family has ever been, and you had somehow managed to get yourself unto a airplane with engine problems and had to parachute out over the Andes Mountains, that you would have somehow ended up floating down just into time to see Donnie squatting out behind that garage."
Golly looked me strangely for minute, then he uttered the phrase that had given him his nickname, "Well golly gee, Danny. I guess I could see it, but let's keep it just between you and me. I don't think most of the people round here would understand in the least, ya know what I mean?
"Well, I was thinking bout telling Preacher Preacher."
"That's what I mean, especially don't say nuthin to Preacher Preacher. He'll bring it up in church. That fool been lookin for somethin to latch onto to restore his general reputation ever since that stutterin incident."
"Maybe it needs to be brought up though, I mean seeing that is all wrapped up in the bigger picture of things and all."
Golly just shook his head, "No. You just going to have to trust me on this one, Danny."
And so I did. I wrapped that memory up in a plastic bag, and poked a few holes in so that it could breathe, placed it in a styrofoam cooler, put a complete copy of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough on top of it and hid it in the furthest corner of the deepest basement level of my subconscious. (It had a lot company down there. There was coffee can with the memory of when I peed my pants in my first grade classroom, a shoe box containing the memory of me joining in with a bunch of boys and teasing Barbara Lee till she cried, and a blue, locked, tin-metal box with the memory of when I broke down and cried as Julie Prime was breaking up with me.)
I didn't ever think about the incident until one dark, stormy Halloween night when I was attending Columbia University working on my Masters in Literature. I was home alone in my apartment reading a book about the French Revolution and was perusing this passage about the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a vicious rascal, and as radical as they come, someone who kept pushing the violence of the revolution. The author described him as having green tinged, scabrous skin (Marat suffered from a skin condition) and having a croaking, frog-like voice. It was said Marat would squat down on the banks of the Paris sewers while hiding from the authorities. He would later be assassinated by a beautiful young lady name Charlotte Corday and his death immortalized in the famous painting by the artist Jacques-Louis David.
The image of a toad-like Marat squatting down by the sewer opened the door to the basement room where my deepest memories were stored and the squatting Donnie Dunworth suddenly made an unbidden appearance in my room. I tried to nip things in the bud by closing the book and picking up another one and reading something else, but by some strange synchronous power, I opened up the page to an illustration of the Aztec earth goddess Tlaltcuhtli who was often depicted as having a squatting, toad-like body, crocodile skin, and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
It just so happened, at that time, I was also working on a graphic arts project where I was supposed to create a graphic image that could be commercialized. I suddenly had another epiphany. An image of a golden frog wearing a gold crown encrusted with rubies and emeralds surrounded by a halo appeared in my head. The motto of Alfred E. Neuman, "What me worry?" was written on a banner below the image. I immediately went over to where my computer was sitting on the kitchen table and created a mock-up of the image after changing the words from the Mad Magazine motto to "No Worries".
To make a long story short, the next morning, I printed up 100 blue t-shirts with the image and took them to a local flea mart. I sold out that first batch in under three hours. Thus, the idea for Gold Frog Industries was born. I copyrighted the image and printed it on everything you could print an image on, often changing the slogan to different sayings. I was smart and sold out right before the idea reached a point of over-saturation and walked away with a cool five million dollars. I also hired a bunch of college students to go out to all the flea marts in the area and buy up all the shirts that people sold knowing that sometime in the not-to-distance future there would be a market for the retro t-shirts.
Ten years later, I went back to Concord for my mother's funeral. Me and Golly got together and went to buy some beer at the local Seven-Eleven. By some strange circumstance in the universal ordering of events, as we pulled into the parking lot, we saw Donnie Dunworth squatting by the rear of a old, rusty blue Honda changing a tire. The passenger windows were down and a couple dirty looking little boys were hanging out watching their daddy work on changing the tire.
It took Donny a while to recognize me, but when he did, he quickly stood up and held out his hand while I approached. When he looked at his hand and saw how dirty it was, he pulled out a red rag from his back pocket and wiped it and held it out again. "Danny Wilson! Damn, man! I seen you since you moved out of your mama's house to go to school."
I grasped his hand and shook it vigorously. "Donny Dunworth, as I live and breathe. How you been dude?"
"Well, as you can see, I'm still here. I'm working at the mill over Hartford. They pay more than these cheap bastards in Concord. Hey, these two little heathens here are my boys, Obie and Obert. Hey boys. This here the neighbor I told you about, Mr. Danny Wilson."
"Hi boys. How come you ain't out here helping your daddy."
The boys both grinned and biggest one said shyly, "Daddy said we ain't big enough, Mr. Wilson."
The boys cheeks were covered in grime, but they were cute little fellers. "You keep growing and you'll be big enough before you know it."
We went in a got the beer, and when we came back outside, I handed it Golly who went and put it in the car. I called Donnie over to where I was and shook his hand and quietly passed him a fifty dollar bill.
He looked at the money and looked around, "What's that for, Danny."
"I figured I owe you for that case of wine. It was yours, wasn't it?"
Donnie's eyes widened, "How the hell did you know that. I never told no one. My neighbor, you remember Mrs. Jones? Well, she got saved one Sunday and swore off drinking. She gave me that case of wine and told me to get rid of it. I hid it in my daddy's tool shed. I was going to give it to mama for her birthday, but Grandpa found it and stole it."
"It took me a while, but I figured it out. You never told nobody?"
Donny laughed so hard his shoulders shook, " Hell, Danny you knew my Grandpa."
"I sure did. I reckon if I had to replace that case of Ripple in today's dollars it would cost me at least fifty dollars. So, you take that money, and we'll call it square, all right?"
Donny didn't say nothing, just smiled and raised his chin and nodded and turned to go back to his tire changing. Danny started walking back toward his car. When he opened his door and slid in behind the wheel, Golly nodded towards the doorway they had just exited and Danny turned and saw Donny leading the two boys into the store.
"You gave that fool some money, didn't you?"
Danny just smiled wryly
"All I had in my pocket was a fifty dollar bill."
Golly mulled things over for a moment, "How come you didn't give him more money. Hell, I know you got at least a $1,000 in your wallet right now. I mean, him copping that squat gave you that damn idea."
"Just watch." After they sat in silence for a moment, they saw Donnie and the boys come out the door and both of them kids were struggling to sip out of a 32 ounce soda using one arm and holding a couple packs of little chocolate donuts in the other. "I'll do something for them boys later. There's some people you just can't hand a thousand dollars. It' ll hurt'em more than do 'em good."
"And Donny's one of them."
Danny smiled again, "Top of the list."