Counter’s segues


All are sent into the thicket of life, Some to hunt and survive, some to be hunted to death . . . I was a deer compelled to live with the hounds —Edgar Lee Masters by Suzanne Nielsen • The year is 1967, the summer before fifth grade, and Emmett and me have a pact. The pact includes club meetings in our fort in Witch’s Woods, which only we know about. Emmett lives three blocks away with old people. I can smell them from outside, a blend of mothballs and cabbage. I think they are his dad’s parents, runaways from some foreign country because the old lady wears a scarf and whistles gibberish through her toothless grin. Some old people are content being old, I guess, but I don’t ask Emmett if this is true with his old people.

Including a calendar, date book, restaurant reviews, essays and poems about Saint Paul, the Saint Paul Almanac is a rich resource for anyone wishing to explore the cultural and social depths of Saint Paul throughout the year.

Being two boys alone, Emmett and me become blood brothers almost immediately, right outside our fort. I file a twig with the pocketknife I stole from Lou Lepshe’s 88-Cent Store on Payne Avenue as sharp as the pin on my mama’s hem. I prick first; Emmett winces while a perfect round globe of blood forms on my finger. I am lightheaded just watching it, and my stomach rumbles at the tinny smell. “Did it hurt?” Emmett asks. His face is a similar color to my blood, fake rubies. It might be due to a combination of sunburn, freckles, and fear. I don’t know. I don’t ask. I pass him the twig. “Go ahead, Emmett, do it quick. It don’t hurt as much as a whippin’,” I say. Emmett takes hold of the twig and stares at it. He watches a trail of my blood soak into the stick, leaving it looking like dried-out sycamore kindling. He slaps me across the face, and I stare in my knife blade as my cheek shadows the imprint of his hand. “Shyster!” I yelp. My left eye fills with water, soon it’s dripping down my branded cheek. “Sorry, Ton,” he says. “That hurt me a lot more than it hurt you. Don’t know why I do that sometimes,” he says. I shrug it off and say, “Just hurry up and bleed, don’t think about it. Things don’t hurt that much if you’re not taken by surprise.” Emmett asks for my knife, wants a clean cut, he says. I don’t argue, although I never wanted blood to touch the blade of my knife. Emmett closes his eyes, but at the last minute he watches himself prick his skin with the mirrored blade. Blood draws instantly. Emmett drops the knife, sucks the blood from his finger. I move next to him, squeeze my finger to draw the blood’s attention, telling Em to do the same. We pinch our fingers together, blending our bloodlines. I know right at that moment he will never abandon me. Emmett whispers under his breath, “Save-diddle-dee-ave-ave-ave-ave-ave-save.” I ask him if he’s talking Swahili, maybe a new form of Pig Latin, but he says, “Tony Baloney, it’s Counterhili, Emmett C. Counterhili. Don’t you ever need to count your syllables?” he asks. I figure Emmett can’t help that his last name is Counter, so he counts. Plus, I don’t want to risk Emmett feeling mental, so I say, “Sure, Emmett, all the time. I count syllables, cracks in the cement, I even count the freckles on your face.” Emmett smiles his jagged grin, says he knows how many freckles are on his face, he’s counted them. “I can’t not count, Tony Baloney,” he says. My name is Tony Anthony. An unfortunate name to have for class attendance. Teachers always start the year off by saying, “Do you go by Tony or Anthony?” I say, “Both.” “Choose one or the other,” they say, “Tony or Anthony?” I say, “Both.” As a result, I spend early fall sitting inside the office with Mr. Grater, the principal, wearing a nametag that reads “wise guy.” When Emmett started calling me Tony Baloney in fourth grade, I perked up. That was the day we became friends. Emmett said that it was a bunch of baloney to send me to the principal’s office. “He can’t help his redundancy,” he lisped to Miss Westerlund, our teacher. Emmett and I spent the morning together in Mr. Grater’s office writing an essay on the importance of names. “Does redundancy mean I’m a dunce that likes to dance, Emmett?” I asked. He said, “No, Tony Baloney. Redundancy means your mom had shit for brains when she named you, that’s all.” We laughed. The idea of my mom’s head being full of turds made my day. I started doodling in my notebook, drawing my mom with poop for hair. Then I drew a pile of shrunken skulls next to a pile of doggy-doo. I could smell pee on me and hoped Emmett didn’t get a whiff. I tried to make the smell go away, so I took out my glue. Emmett and I started to coat our palms in white layers. The smell reminded me of Mr. Hall’s art room. After one coat of glue became see-through, we put another one on, waving our hands in the air to dry them quicker. We were just about to peel our palms like fresh skin off your shoulders after a bad sunburn when Mr. Grater grabbed my notebook from behind and ripped it into confetti. “Lard butt,” Emmett said while making fart sounds under his shirt with his gluey palm and armpit. Then under his breath he said, “Save-diddle-dee-ave-ave-ave-ave-ave-save.” “You’ll live to regret that talk, Counter,” said Grater. “You’re working your way back to Totem Town,” he added. His big fat cheeks shook like settled Jell-O. I noticed he bit his nails too. He walked to his office and slammed the door and a blizzard of confetti flew through the room. We laughed again. “Emmett,” I asked, “what’s Totem Town?” Emmett leaned back in his chair and said it’s where all the outlaws go for incarceration. Emmett’s religious and smart with words. Incarceration must be a Catholic word, I thought. The old people he lived with had lots of Jesus crosses in their house. Emmett wore one around his neck, left his skin the color of dirty pond water. He said Totem Town isn’t that bad of a place. “As soon as you’re twelve,” he said, “you can smoke cigarettes.” “What nationality is your name, Em?” I ask. “I mean, Counter.” We are resting on the ground outside our trailer fort, sucking on tall grass. “All I know, Tony Baloney, is it’s not Bastard,” Emmett says. “And my name has four syllables, just like Jesus’ name; that’s good luck,” he adds while sucking his teeth. When Emmett sucks his teeth, he makes the same whistle sound as the old woman he lives with because the space between his two front teeth could fit a molar easy. I think about Jesus’ name, Jesus H. Christ, my mom always said. Sure enough, four syllables. “I’m not from a bastard background either, Em,” I say. Emmett tucks his hands behind his head, closes his eyes and looks up at the sky, and says, “Don’t ever spend any time looking at those long, stringy clouds, they’re bad luck.” I chalk that one away in my brain. Emmett asks, “Does your ma think you look like your dad?” I write my name in the dirt with the sharpened twig and say, “I don’t know if she remembers.” “Do you mean,” Emmett starts in a Perry Mason-like voice, “she doesn’t remember what your dad looks like or she doesn’t remember your dad?” “Yes to both,” I say. We laugh. Emmett pulls a cigarette butt out of his pocket. I notice lipstick the color of cotton candy on the filter. It makes me hungry. Emmett pinches off the lip stains, holds the butt between his teeth, and lights it off of a farmer match that he strikes on the patched knee of his blue jeans. He passes it to me after a deep inhale. I watch as three perfect smoke rings come out his mouth. I think of the trestle, of the trains. “Emmett,” I say, “ let’s go ride the trains.” I take a puff, and cough up my tonsils. I pass the butt back to Emmett and rub my tongue along the crabgrass. “Knock it off, Ton,” says Emmett. “Some dog might have peed there.” I look at Emmett and say, “How can you stand to smoke? I’d rather drink dog pee.” I wonder if Emmett thinks I do drink dog pee. “It’s gotta be about two o’clock by now,” I say. “The train comes behind Sacred Heart Church at 2:40. Come on, Em, let’s go jump it.” Emmett looks over at our abandoned trailer fort we found earlier this summer in the woods. It was just left there by someone, maybe burglars. We don’t know. Anyway, we claim ownership of it now. “What about the yard?” Emmett says, smiling. “Who’ll water the grass—feed the rose bushes?” I look around and remember hearing Fred MacMurray say something like that on My Three Sons. “Why do you always do that, Emmett?” I say. Emmett looks at me, spits on his fingers twice, and rolls the cigarette between them until it’s out. “Do what, Ton?” he says. “Why do you always change the subject,” I say, “and why do you always spit twice? We’re talking about real life here, and you make fun of it. I hate that, Emmett.” Emmett stuffs the butt with only one more puff left in his pocket. “Segues, Tony Baloney,” he says, “keeps life interesting.” I walk to the trailer, go in and grab my flashlight from under my sleeping bag, along with the bag of money I’ve been stashing in our secret home. A musty smell follows me outside where I start counting the kale. “BlessmefatherforIhavesinned,” says Emmett, “save-diddle-dee-ave-ave-ave-ave-ave-save.” “Em,” I say, “I’ve got $27 right here, plus three gold teeth. I’ve been pinching my mom’s purse since last fall. She just got her government check yesterday, so she’ll be gone for at least four days. Come on, Em; let’s get on that train. Tell the old people you’re going out of town with me and my mom to the Badlands for vacation.” Emmett looks down at his dirty and gnawed hands. “I’m s’pose to have religion class on Saturday,” Emmett says, biting his nail. “But I could always tell them I’m goin’ to church in the Badlands,” he says. I say that isn’t that big of a lie. We’re off to some bad land. I can feel it in my bones. Emmett and me run like deer all the way to Sacred Heart Church. Emmett says he has to use the bathroom in the basement. I wait down by the tracks. I can hear the train in the distance. I start thinking of all the places we can go. New Orleans, maybe. We could go there and get free necklaces. My neighbors did that once. They gave them to my mom last spring just for the heck of it. She put them in my Easter basket, said they were almost as valuable as my grandma’s gold teeth. I check my pocket, the envelope with the teeth are safe and secure. And here comes Emmett. “Hurry,” I shout. “I can hear the train comin’!” I feel my knees start to shake. I’ve only watched the Palmer kids hop trains before. Rusty Palmer fell and broke his arm. He had a cast on all summer long and when he got the cast off, his arm looked like it was dead. “Let’s go to New Orleans, Emmett,” I say. “We can grab a bunch of necklaces and take them somewheres else, make a bundle.” Emmett looks at me, says he lit two candles in the church, one for each of us. “There you go again, Em,” I say. “Changin’ the subject.” Emmett lets out a laugh with a sigh attached. “No segue this time, Tony Baloney,” he says. “We need a candle glowin’ for each of us, plus one is bad luck.” It dawns on me that Emmett doesn’t know I’ve brought along the flashlight. I pull it out of my sock, show it to him, and say, “Em, I’m always thinkin’.” I feel smart, almost as smart as Emmett, who uses words like redundancy, incarceration, and segue—almost as smart as Emmett, who knows all about Totem Town and how to get under Mr. Grater’s skin. There’s the train blowing smoke. It’s not going to stop for us, but we’re not stopping, either. I can feel it. “Watch your limbs,” I say to Emmett. “Don’t break an arm or a leg.” Emmett starts kicking his feet in the dirt like a bull shucking its hooves. “Grab hold of the caboose,” Emmett says to me. With that, the train meets up with our spindly legs; Emmett jumps in between the cars. I’m alone, waiting for the caboose. “Where are we going?” I scream. I think I hear Emmett’s voice echo off the trestle, “We’re goin’ to Totem Town, Tony Baloney. We’re goin to live with the hounds. Hailmaryfullofgracesave-diddle-dee-ave-ave-ave-ave-ave-save.” He’s still a rambler on the go And shares the curse of every ’bo Each time he hears the whistle blow He longs for places far —Buzz Potter

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.