Joe Bob was a bit slow, though none of us in the Hasper family were all that bright either. Only Jimmy Roy had any kind of education to brag about, having graduated from a two-year college. We had all gathered on the porch, waitin’ on him to arrive home for Joe Bob’s eighteenth birthday.
Jimmy Roy had been away from home for three years, missin’ Joe Bob’s other birthdays, so none of us knew why he had chosen to come back home for this one. He did send Joe Bob birthday cards every year. Each one of ’em had a large birthday cake on the front.
Joe Bob hated brushing his teeth but did it that morning as a way of welcomin’ his older brother home, but either the toothbrush scrubbin’ the yellow and green from his teeth and gums, or the mint in the toothpaste, caused his tongue to erupt in small sores that he said, “Burned like hell.” He walked around most of the mornin’ with his tongue stickin’ out, hopin’ a bit of fresh air would take the pain away. It didn’t.
Just before Jimmy Roy was to arrive, the entire family and a couple of his friends gathered on the porch. The oldest of us sat on the kitchen chairs brought out onto the porch especially for Jimmy Roy’s return. Ma threatened us all that she’d take the switch to us to within an inch of our lives if we damaged them in any way. They were so scratched up and ready to collapse that it would be impossible to do much more damage unless the legs were jerked clean off ’em.
The younger ones just stood around behind us guzzlin’ Coca-Colas.
The boys’ Grandpa and Grandma sat in chairs at opposite ends of the porch. They weren’t talkin’ to one another but wouldn’t say why. Ma put a pillow on Grandpa’s chair ’cause he was havin’ difficulty with those painful roids again. He said they always flared up like tiny balloons around his butt hole every time he ate Grandma’s greasy squirrel stew. They were my parents and I knew what he meant about the stew. He showed me his roids once. They were somethin’ I only needed to see once in my life to put me off ever eatin’ squirrel again.
Truth be told, not much talkin’ was going on among any of us. It were more like a funeral than a homecomin’.
Joe Bob sat on the top porch step suckin’ on an ice cube that his Ma gave to him as a remedy to his affliction. Other than the screechin’ of the cicadas in every tree on our property, the sound of that ice cube clickin’ against his teeth were about the only sound to be heard.
Ma had gone back inside a bit earlier to make sure the roast chickens weren’t burnin’. She was roastin’ three of ’em at the same time. The roastin’ pans were packed in the oven like stones in a kidney. Only I knew that Ma had no intention of greetin’ Jimmy Roy home, “as if he were a hero of some kind.” She was still mad at him for movin’ to Nashville to go to college to begin with.
Only Joe Bob made a noise when Jimmy Roy’s car pulled into the driveway. He stood up and spit out the ice cube. “Sheeeet!” he called out, sounding the same as when a high pressured pipe springs a leak, “Jimmy Roy’s got a girl with him.”
Jimmy Roy stopped the car a few yards from the front of the house. He got out and without lookin’ at us he walked around his car and opened the front passenger side car door. Out stepped about the prettiest dang thing I ever set eyes on, although she looked closer in age to Joe Bob than Jimmy Roy, but she was of legal age, no-doubtin’ it. I was glad Ma was indoors. She could hear me gettin’ an erection even before I knew it was happenin’.
Holdin’ the girl’s hand Jimmy Roy walked up to the porch, and grinnin’ like a raccoon who just caught a catfish, said to her, “This is my little brother, Joe Bob, the birthday boy.”
With teeth shinin’ bright ’nuff to melt butter, she reached out her hand to shake Joe Bob’s. “Happy Birthday, Joe Bob. I’m Caroline. It’s such a pleasure meeting you. Jimmy talks about you all the time. I’m so happy that you’re going to be my brother-in-law.”
If I thought it was dead-quiet until then, after that announcement I was sure I heard a pin drop in the state of Alaska. I coulda sworn I saw that spark folks talk about light up between her and Jim Bob.
Takin’ her hand and grippin’ onto it like he was milking a cow, he gazed into her eyes and stammered, “Today’s not my birthday. That’s tomorrow.”
She gave him a peck on the cheek. “I know, sweetie. Your brother has something big planned for you. He says you like cake, so we’re taking you to that cake shop he told me about that you like so much.”
“Cake is my favorite food,” he said
“Mine too,” she replied like a giddy chipmunk.
She held onto his hand just a bit longer than was necessary before she gently pulled her hand from his.
Maybe I was just imaginin’ things but there was that spark again. Maybe.
Jimmy Roy patted Joe Bob’s shoulder as he walked past his brother, leading Caroline up the stairs to meet everyone else. I was the first to be introduced to her. She smelled like fresh strawberries.
“I can see why Jimmy Roy never came home for a visit,” I said to her, chuckling like a drunk chicken. Ma always told me I was charming when I laughed like that.
Jimmy Roy stepped in between us. “I never came home because I hate it here.” He then turned, pulling her with him, and told his friend Tyler, “Meet the sweetest girl on Earth.”
With all the chairs brought in and placed around the table, the family sat down and watched as Ma brought in three platters, each one with a perfectly roasted chicken on it. Caroline was the only non-family member sitting at the table. Jimmy Roy’s friends were seated at a card table set up in the living room. Joe Bob was quick to seat himself by Caroline. He acted like he had never seen a girl before. She giggled softly each time she gazed at him. Unlike Jimmy Roy who dated a lot while in high school, Joe Bob never did. Ma said that there was lots of evidence in his laundry – sheets and underwear – that he must be thinkin’ about girls a lot, but we never brought it up. Havin’ a boy who is slow were never easy.
Durin’ dinner Ma sat at one end of the table without even once sayin’ anything to Caroline.
Jimmy Roy and Ma only said a few words to one another that went somethin’ like this:
Jimmy Roy: “Ma, wasn’t I lucky to find a girl to marry as pretty as Caroline?”
Ma: “You should be ashamed of yourself bringin’ a strange girl to your brother’s birthday celebration.”
Durin’ dinner we all found out why Grandma and Grandpa weren’t talkin’ to each other. She caught him in their bed with the woman who came in to help Grandpa take his baths.
In his defense, he said, “Some parts of a man’s body are harder to get clean than others.”
From lookin’ around the table it was obvious no one understood exactly what he meant, but not much food was consumed after that.
That night, after everyone else had gone home, Joe Bob, Caroline and Jimmy Roy sat on the sofa and watched a movie, her squeezed in tightly between them as snug as bug in a rug. All three of them grinnin’ like those cats in that kid’s book. It was hard to tell which of them was supposed to be the slow one. I stayed in Ma’s and my bedroom oiling my shotgun while Ma laid on the bed knittin’ a new shawl for Grandma. “Men are skunks,” she kept mumbling.
I knew it were better that I not say anything in my defense.
At bedtime, I heard two voices in the hallway, Joe Bob’s and Caroline’s. I couldn’t make out what they were sayin’, but the silence that followed just before they went to their bedrooms was the loudest silence I ever heard.
Ma made scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits for breakfast.
While eatin’, Jimmy Roy told us about his new job that had somethin’ to do with computers. He seemed pretty excited and chirped on and on about it like a stir crazy canary during which Ma never looked up from her plate and Jim Bob stared at Caroline. I had forgotten how silky a young girl’s skin can appear.
Breakin’ into Jimmy Roy’s speech about some computer thingies and widgets, I blurted out, “How’d you two meet?”
Ma suddenly stood up, looked around the table, and then set her fiery gaze on the lot of us, all at once. Her face was flush with anger. “I don’t care how they met. I just know I won’t be attendin’ their weddin’.” She picked up her plate and turned to go into the kitchen and then turned around before going through the door. “This is Joe Bob’s birthday and that’s who we should be thinkin’ about.”
Joe Bob sat in his chair as still as a trapped mouse, his eyes as wide as headlights. He suddenly looked slow again. Downright stupid, actually.
During the drive into town, Joe Bob sat in the front passenger seat beside me while Jimmy Roy and Caroline sat in the back seat. He spent the entire ride explaining what a chip was, which was nothing like what I knew chips to be. What he described couldn’t be eaten. Joe Bob turned his head frequently to look at them, then turned back and watched the road in stony silence.
Ma would have nothin’ to do with a ride into town to buy a birthday cake “bein’ bought by them” meaning her eldest son and his fiance, even if the cake was to bought at the best bakery in the county, Gerta Mae’s Sweet Somethings. To Joe Bob it was like goin’ to an amusement park where the only rides were two and three layered cakes smothered in icing. As soon as we got out of the car and parked behind the bakery’s delivery van that sat idling at the curb, the fragrant scents of sugar, vanilla and chocolate wafted from the open bakery door.
Joe Bob grabbed Caroline’s hand and pulled her into Gerta Mae’s.
By the time Jimmy Roy and I entered the bakery, his fiance and Joe Bob had already stuffed their mouths with cake samples that Greta Mae always cut into small pieces and placed on napkins on the top of the cake display case. They were laughin’ and ticklin’ each other like two children high on sugar.
Jimmy Roy and I wandered around the bakery looking at all the other baked goods on the racks that formed several aisles.
I looked over at the counter where Joe Bob and Caroline had been, then looked out the bakery door and saw the bakery van speed away. “You sure she’s the right girl for you?” I asked him.