Things have changed. The world has evolved. A punch in the mouth ain’t what it used to be.
Once you were more apt to settle your own problems, or have them settled for you, by an angry party. Teeth could be lost, and bones could be broken, but mostly you just got black eye, a bloody nose, or you might be found temporarily unconscious, face down in a small pool of blood out back of a bar with a shoe missing.
These days, even defending yourself can be tricky. It seems to me a butt-whipping in the name of ustice has mutated to three shots from an automatic weapon at close quarters and three frames of bowling with your dead head. There are too many nuts with guns these days, and most of them just think the other guy is nuts. An armed society is a polite society only if those armed are polite. Otherwise, it just makes a fellow nervous.
Still, not wishing back the past. Not exactly. But there are elements of the past I do miss. There are times when I like the idea of settling your own hash—without gunfire. Sometimes the other guy has it coming.
When I was a kid in East Texas, we lived in a home that sat on a hill overlooking what was called a beer joint or honky-tonk. Beyond the tonk was a highway, and beyond that a drive-in theater standing as tall and white as a monstrous slice of Wonder Bread.
You could see the drive-in from our house, and from that hill my mother and I would watch the drive-in without sound. What I remember best were Warner Bros. cartoons. As we watched, mom would tell me what the cartoon characters were saying. Later, when I saw the cartoons on TV—something we didn’t have at the time—I was shocked to discover Mom had made up the stories out of the visuals. My mom was a dad-burned liar. It was an early introduction to storytelling.
But this isn’t storytelling. This is reporting, and what I’m about to tell you is real, and I was there. It’s one of my first memories. So mixed up was the memory that, years later, when I was a grown man, I had to ask my mother if it was a dream, or fragments of memories shoved together. I had some things out of order, and I had mixed in an item or two, but my mother sorted them out for me. This is what happened.
My mother and I stayed at home nights while my dad was on the road, working on trucks. He was a mechanic and a troubleshooter for a truck company. My entertainment was my mother and that silent drive-in and the fistfights that sometimes occurred in the honky-tonk parking lot, along with the colorful language I filed away for later use.
We were so poor that my dad used to say that if it cost a quarter to crap, we’d have to throw up. There wasn’t money for a lot of toys, nor at that time a TV, which was a fairly newfangled instrument anyway. We listened to the radio when the tubes finally glowed and warmed up enough for us to bring in something.
Dad decided that the drive-in, seen through a window at a great distance, and a static-laden radio with a loose tube that if touched incorrectly would knock you across the room with a flash of light and a hiss like a spitting cobra, were not proper things for a growing boy. He thought I needed a friend.
Below, at the tonk, a dog delivered pups. Dad got me one. It was a small, fuzzy ball of dynamite. Dad named him Honky Tonk. I called him Blackie. I loved that dog so dearly that even writing about him now makes me emotional. We were like brothers. We drank out of the same bowl, when mom didn’t catch us; and he slept in my bed, and we shared fleas. We had a large place to play, a small creek out back, and beyond that a junkyard of rusting cars full of broken glass and sharp metal and plenty of tetanus.
And there was the house.
It sat on a hill above the creek, higher than our house, surrounded by glowing red and yellow flowers immersed in dark beds of dirt. It was a beautiful sight, and on a fine spring day those flowers pulled me across that little creek and straight to them as surely as a siren calling to a mariner. Blackie came with me, tongue hanging out, his tail wagging. Life was great. We were as happy as if we had good sense and someone else’s money.
I went up there to look, and Blackie, like any self-respecting dog, went there to dig in the flower bed. I was watching him do it, probably about to join in, when the door opened and a big man came out and snatched my puppy up by the hind legs and hit him across the back of the head with a pipe, or stick, and then, as if my dog were nothing more than a used condom, tossed him into the creek.
Then the man looked at me.
I figured I was next and bolted down the hill and across the creek to tell my mother. She had to use the next-door neighbor’s phone, as this was long before everyone had one in their pocket. It seemed no sooner than she walked back home from making her call than my dad arrived like Mr. Death in our old black car.
He got out wearing greasy work clothes and told me to stay and started toward the House of Flowers. I didn’t stay. I was devastated. I had been crying so hard my mother said I hiccupped when I breathed. I had to see what was about to happen. Dad went across the creek and to the back door and knocked gently, like a Girl Scout selling cookies. The door opened, and there was the Flower Man.
My dad hit him. It was a quick, straight punch and fast as a bee flies. Flower Man went down faster than a duck on a june bug, but without the satisfaction. He was out. He was hit so hard his ancestors in the prehistoric past fell out of a tree.
Dad grabbed him by the ankles and slung him through the flowerbed like a dull weed eater, mowed down all those flowers, even made a mess of the dirt. If Flower Man came awake during this process, he didn’t let on. He knew it was best just to let Dad finish. It was a little bit like when a grizzly bear gets you; you just kind of have to go with it. When the flowers were flat, Dad swung the man by his ankles like a discus, and we watched him sail out and into the shallow creek with a sound akin to someone dropping wet laundry on cement.
We went down in the creek and found Blackie. He was still alive. Flower Man didn’t move. He lay in the shallow water and was at that moment as much a part of that creek as the gravel at its bottom.
Daddy took Blackie home and treated his wound, a good knock on the noggin, and that dog survived until the age of 13. When I was 18, Blackie and I were standing on the edge of the porch watching the sun go down, and Blackie went stiff, flopped over the edge, dead for real this time.
Bless my daddy. We had our differences when I was growing up, and we didn’t see eye to eye on many things. But he was my hero from that day after. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t remember what he did that day, and how he made something so dark and dismal turn bright.
No one sued. Then, events like that were considered personal. To pull a lawyer into it was not only embarrassing, but just plain sissy. Today we’d be sued for the damage my dog did, the damage my dad did, and emotional distress, not to mention bandages and the laundry bill for the wet and dirty clothes.
I know the man loved his flowers. I know my dog did wrong, if not bad. I know I didn’t give a damn at the time and thought about digging there myself. But I was a kid and Blackie was a pup, and if ever there was a little East Texas homespun justice delivered via a fast arm and a hard fist, that was it.
Flower Man, not long after that, moved away, slunk off like a carnival that owed bills. A little later we moved as well, shortly after the drive-in was wadded up by a tornado. That’s another story.
Watch a video of Joe R. Lansdale giving a tour of where he grew up.
Contributing writer Joe R. Lansdale lives in Nacogdoches. His most recent novel is Vanilla Ride.