By Thomas Penn Johnson,
Douglas Park was just at the bottom of The Big Hill at the West end of the block where Butch lived, so it was by no means an unusual or out-of-the-way place for a rendezvous with his next door neighbor and best friend Buzzy. But he was puzzled by the clandestine over-the-fence delivery of Buzzy’s whispered summons. Butch finished his evening paper route and rode his brand new English-racer into the park at the Pearson Street entrance, a long city block West of The Big Hill. Seeing no Buzzy anywhere in the park, he decided to wait for him over by the wading pool where he could sit on the encircling concrete bench and watch everything going on in the park.
He chatted awhile with neighborhood twins Katherina and Charlene, and then he turned around to dangle his feet in the wading pool, mainly to avoid eye contact with then-arriving Bobby Matthews, the Douglas Park self-appointed nemesis to everybody who didn’t carry around a B-B handgun the way he did. Soon after Bobby finished his late afternoon rounds bullying all-comers in the park, Buzzy, on his hand-me-down J. C. Higgins, rolled down The Big Hill and peddled into the park. He wheeled over to Butch at the wading pool, stopped, pushed down his kickstand and didn’t get off the bike.
To Butch he said: “My grandmother says I can’t hang around with you at your house anymore, and she doesn’t want you coming over to our house, except to deliver the paper.”
Stunned, Butch protested: “What did I do? What did I do?”
Seeing his sister Kate and Butch’ s neighbor Cynthia coming towards them from the direction of the tunnel at the Southeastern corner of the park, Buzzy put off answering Butch. Butch and Cynthia’s family dwellings were located cattycorner from each other at the intersection of the two streets at one end of the block where Butch, Buzzy, and the twins lived. Though they were all good friends, the boys were as yet oblivious to the recent decision of the two girls (in concert with their older sisters, of course) that one day Cynthia would marry Buzzy, and Butch would marry Kate. It was already decided in the neighborhood marriage sweepstakes — in which hunting-sport the girls generally took the lead by playing it as a team sport (with the girls being on the same side, more or less), while the boys played as individual huntsmen on the scent of very particular game.
Even the unmarried adults played at this game. The sparking amongst households in the neighborhood was always going on fast and furiously. Just a few days prior Buzzy’s Uncle Benny had gotten engaged to their next door neighbor, Miss Earlene, one of Katherina and Charlene’s aunts; and everybody at his house had known for a while that his cousin Tommy was sweet on their sister Carolyn. Butch’s older sister was head-over-heels in love with Dump, the older of the two cute brothers who resided in a house at the intersection across the street from both Butch and Cynthia; and his baby sister Cassandra was still trying to choose between Dump’s little brother Wallace, Cynthia’s little brother David, or Buzzy’s little brother James.
Cynthia strolled up to the boys and went right to work on Buzzy, saying: “So, Buzzy, did you hear, my sister Delgracia is going to marry your cousin Jesse, and that means she might stay at your grand-momma’s house? And if you and me got married, we could all live together in the same house like brothers and sisters!”
Looking like a fawn caught in the headlights, Buzzy stared silently into the distance, leaving Butch and Cynthia both unanswered.
So, vexed and impatient, Butch demanded again: “What did I do?”
Ignoring Cynthia, Buzzy turned towards Butch and exclaimed: “That’s all Momma said: you can come in our yard to deliver the paper and that’s all, and I can’t come over to your house. I can’t be your friend no more, that’s all she said.”
Kate was a youngster thought by her family to be too full of sass and vinegar for her own good. Her grandmother believed religiously that discipline was meant for children’s instruction, she insisted on using a wild cherry switch as an instrument of instruction, she didn’t believe in slapping children anywhere on their heads, and she would not switch a clothed backsides; instruction was meant to be direct, firm, and impartial.
But Kate’s strong-willed resistance to being told what to do and her frequent flat-footed refusals to obey whenever she set her mind against doing so, — this once drove her grandmother to the frenzy of grabbing her with both hands by the ears and repeatedly banging her head against the bedroom wall, which spectacle so horrified the children present they gasped and cried out to their grandmother to desist.
Kate’s typical brashness was evident in her voice when she shared her two cents worth: “You know Momma is always doing stuff like that! You remember how she wouldn’t let Jesse and Tommy play Ninety-Ninety Baseball with Floyd any more, they could go next door to Butch’s house but they couldn’t go across the street to Floyd’s house because he had sores.”
Buzzy responded, “Yes, I remember when Floyd had those bad sores.”
Kate went on: “And you remember before Aunt Ruth died Momma wouldn’t let her go down to Miss Mae’s house at the top of The Big Hill?”
“That’s right,” Buzzy recollected, “because Aunt Ruth would buy whiskey from Miss Mae.”
Kate was on a roll: “And you know she has a fit if the boys decide to play softball in that field over by Bobby Matthews’ house.”
Butch remained unenlightened by this talk and protested: “Yeah, but I ain’t got no sores! Why can’t me and Buzzy be friends no more? What did I do?”
Neither Buzzy nor Kate nor any other member of their household had any clue as to their grandmother’s motivations, but they knew her edict was final. For all except Buzzy and Butch the matter of Butch’s exile was dropped and soon erased from memory.
Their grandmother died a few years later without relenting in her opposition to a friendship between Buzzy and Butch, and without ever explaining her reasons to anyone in the household. She did, however, express some surprise when reading in the paper one evening that Butch was on the high school football team, and Buzzy had taken that as a sign of some softening in her resistance to allowing him and Buzzy to be friends again. Buzzy’s grandmother died shortly thereafter, and Butch and Buzzy eventually got back together, they played on the same basketball and football teams during their high school and college days.
In those days Buzzy spent almost every evening at Butch’s house. Butch’s mother treated Buzzy like her second son and Butch’s only brother. She got a color TV for her den which was turned over to Butch and Buzzy for their exclusive space; she made hot biscuits every night for dinner with plenty left over for snacks, and she would let both boys occasionally drive her late husband’s reliable pick-up truck. After their college years Buzzy moved up North, and shortly thereafter he went to live in France never to see Butch again.
Buzzy was the only brother Butch ever had, and so knowing intuitively that he could not survive without a brother’s love when Buzzy left for France, Butch glommed on to the best substitute he could find in Buzzy’s grandmother’s house, Buzzy’s cousin Tommy, Jesse’s little brother. Together these two practically lived at Butch’s mother’s house where Butch and Buzzy and then Tommy were always loved equally. For all the love they received from each other, Butch and Tommy frequently would say of the other: “How can a man who has so little give so much?”
Tommy went away to college, and before he and Butch got out of their twenties Tommy moved to Chicago to become a college instructor, infrequently thereafter going to visit folks in his hometown. He and Butch forever loved one another like brothers, though once Butch, ever the athlete devoted to keeping his body strong and pure, was quite miffed when, after only a few months in Chicago, Tommy returned for a visit with marijuana which he offered to smoke with Butch.
But after years of trying and failing to make it in professional basketball—despite his spectacular athletic physique, Butch was barely five feet nine inches tall—Butch and his similarly situated erstwhile teammate Henry commiserated with each other by turning to the crack pipe. Without a steadfast brother nearby to comfort and guide him along life’s journey Butch lost his way, falling often as low as crack-heads invariably do. For all that, throughout all his life Butch continued to wonder what he did to make Buzzy’s grandmother dislike him; the mystery stuck in his memory and troubled his mind like a curse or spell.
When all the children were old and their yesterday dreamings were long-since unrealized and forgotten, the next-door-neighbors held occasional reunions when Tommy and Butch would get together, they would remain close brothers for the rest of their lives despite the considerable grief and heartache visited upon them by addiction and Butch’s manifest deterioration. They saw each other last when Buzzy and Tommy’s last living aunt of their grandmother’s household died.
Butch arrived with his mother for the funeral in Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal sanctuary, and when Tommy embraced him and expressed great relief at seeing him there, Butch admonished Tommy saying “Where else was I going to be today?” That same day was also the last time Butch would speak to anyone regarding the unresolved mystery about what he had done to make Tommy’s grandmother break up him and Buzzy. He asked Tommy if he remembered anything that might shed some light on the unsolved mystery.
Tommy knew nothing but assured Butch he would think on it some more. Tommy decided to talk the matter over with Buzzy’s baby brother who recently let it be known to all the family that he was gay, to which information, he told Tommy, Buzzy had responded with “Do you think it was my fault?”—a still mystifying response.
Buzzy’s brother told Tommy that he thought their momma feared that Buzzy and Butch were too close. Tommy hadn’t thought of that possibility, but before he got the chance to satisfy Butch’s curiosity with this new consideration Butch’s physical deterioration rapidly accelerated, he wound up living in hospitals and shelters, then swiftly he was gone: he was found dead in the hotel room where he was staying.
Though not as stout in heart as his robust father, in his heart Butch was always true to the faith of his fathers: he was standing next to his sister’s hospital bed when, body wracked by cancer, she breathed her last, this despite his own failing health (he died six months later). Then considering all the love Butch gave to his sisters and brothers and many others, and considering all the inspiration he gave to his neighborhood through athletic prowess in his youth and his lifelong gentle spirit, Butch, as the preacher would say at his funeral, may be adjudged lovingly as a bruised reed who surely died contented.
Thomas Penn Johnson was born in Greensboro, North Carolina where he graduated from James B. Dudley High School, and in 1968 he received an MA in English from UNC-G. In 2009 he retired from then-Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida after serving for 26 years as an instructor of English and humanities.