Our Carlotta neighbors “Mable and Henry Spuckler” had a lot of children. How many? Who knows? Barefoot, leaky-eyed, runty kids always seemed to be coming and going. They were emaciated, sticky-looking youngsters with faces that only a mother could love, kneading mud into pies, dragging battered dolls through the littered yard, and occasionally leaping from the roof of their house.

My mom and I lived next door to the Spucklers. Of their countless children I knew only two: Elmira and Cletus. Elmira was a child of stunning ugliness, an inherited mixture of bulging eyes and mashed-in nose, a frog-faced girl whose dresses were torn and shoes scuffed. She hated school or anything that resembled work. Elmira’s favorite activity, I think, was expending as little energy as possible. The girl was lazy all right, but compared to her brother, Cletus, she looked like she was running around with flames shooting out of her rear end.

Cletus had skin as white as chicken dooky, dark, windowless eyes, and wore clothes that looked as if they had come off the damaged goods shelf of a seedy secondhand store. He spent the majority of his time throwing rocks at his siblings or sitting cross-legged in the dirt with a lighter, burning the wings off of flies.

And dumb? Cletus was the only kid I knew who couldn’t figure out a ballpoint pen. I guess I felt a little sorry for him. It was a shallow emotion, feeling sorry. But it was the best I could muster up.

On top of their many shortcomings, the Spucklers were on welfare, and oh how mom hated that. She could think of nothing worse. At the bottom of everything, below even the septic tank, was a time when you might have to go on welfare. The Spucklers were, in fact, a second-generation welfare family. To my mother this was proof positive that their genes and chromosomes were severely tainted.

All in all, the Spucklers were a pretty pitiful bunch. I don’t think I ever heard anyone say a kind word on their behalf. I’m sure I never heard my mom say one. There was irony aplenty in the fact that we were forced to rub elbows with them. Their house was a monument to white trashery, a remarkably ugly two-bedroom shanty with missing shingles, broken windows, and unpainted siding that had no equivalent outside the third world.

Everything the Spucklers did naturally turned out to be against the law. They never paid their bills. They never registered their automobiles. They never bought a dog license. And they stole things, sometimes right out from under our noses. First it was the hubcaps off mom’s ’48 Rambler, both of them. After that it was a jerry can of gasoline, a tow chain, and a bumper jack, right out of our garage. Then it was a blackberry pie.

It happened on a Sunday. I remember, because that’s when Mom made me go to church. Pastor Brown’s sermons were always on “Hell and Damnation.” You could almost feel the fire and smell the brimstone as the Pastor clutched his bible and explained how unrepentant sinners would be inflicted with heart disease, cancer, and various ailments of the bowels.

A question and answer period would follow and I would ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

The only good thing about Sunday was that mom would sometimes bake a blackberry pie before church and let it cool on the windowsill until we got home. That pie was almost worth the torture of enduring another of Pastor Brown’s salvos on the hot coals and blistering heat that awaited sassy children and town alcoholics. On that particular Sunday we had just returned from church when mom let out a blood-curdling scream. Her blackberry pie was missing from the windowsill. All clues pointed to the Spucklers.

here was an empty pie tin in their yard and the entire clan was walking around wreathed in berry-stained smiles.

In short, the situation contained either a dead rat or one in rapidly failing health.

“Do you think our neighbors took the pie?” I asked.

My mother threw me a look that said dumb question. “Of course they took it.” Then she added, “I’ll get even with the Spucklers. Just you wait and see.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think mom ever gave any real thought to the nature of the problem. These were backwoods folks we were dealing with. She didn’t know that when you pushed against people like the Spucklers they would always roll back on you. Such was their specific gravity.

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