Ours was the last house on the first paved road into Yampertown from the main one, Highway 73. The big white one with the newly painted black shutters, wraparound porch, and the big dying oak tree next to the gravel driveway was ours.
Yampertown had a gas station, a welding shop, a Baptist church, a post office, and two bootleggers. The rest of it was a hodgepodge of houses that — with each passing year — became more cluttered and looked less alive. Bird droppings accumulated on cars for what looked like years, the cars becoming so covered in white and brown spots one might think the owner had paid for it to be that way. The population was 204, no 203.
Our house was the one with the permanent “Free Kitten” sign attached to our mailbox and the red pump outside that we sometimes had to use to wash our feet before being let back inside.
Our yard was crawling with cats and kittens, all colors and sizes of them, some named, some not. A precious two or three were allowed inside some nights. “Go Home” was my favorite, a big yellow male stray named for the only two words my daddy ever said to him.
My mama and sisters and I were still upset at the loss of Midnight, our oldest and favorite cat. She’d play surrogate mother for all of the blind abandoned kittens left behind by some irresponsible mother that was probably out trying to get pregnant again.
Midnight had been shot by one of the Willis boys next door, all of whom I despised. TJ, the oldest, seemed the likeliest suspect, though Eli or Bennie were equally good guesses.
Bennie’s nose was always running; his sleeve never dry, damp with the snot and drool he wiped away during the day. Eli’s hair was buzzed short and he had a diamond stud in his right ear. They all cussed a lot and either tried to push us off our bikes or run us down. They’d knock us over and beat me up and kiss my sisters.
They put dead Midnight in a paper bag and set her on our front porch.
One time Eli kicked me off my bike and made my nose bleed. I wished he was dead.
The Willis’ home looked like it had once been a beautiful farmhouse, the biggest and whitest for miles. By the time we moved next door, the paint was peeling badly, the shutters barely clinging on, the yard a wreck of boys and weeds, and was guarded by a loud and agitated pit bull named Moonshine.
Aside from all this, though, my sisters and I loved where we lived. Some nights, especially after a big rain, we would run around in the field next to our house with flashlights, overturning rocks and pulling out huge earthworms until my mom called us inside for Wheel of Fortune. The enormous worms in our field could well be mistaken for baby copperheads in the dark nights after a big rain.
There was a creek next to the church, about a ten-minute bike ride from where we lived. We’d take off our shoes and dip our toes into its cold sludgy bottom, waving away water bugs and silently hunting frogs and crawdads or whatever else we could find.
Along the way, my oldest sister liked to rummage through Neighbor’s garden. Neighbor was an old man who lived about halfway between our house and the creek. Nobody knew Neighbor’s real name. Everybody just called him Neighbor. My sister walked through the garden as if it were her own, picking strawberries and tomatoes and biting right into them as she stood between his vegetables.
She convinced me once that banana peppers did in fact taste like bananas and that I wouldn’t believe how sweet they were, just a tiny bit different, a little peppery-er. That wasn’t even as bad as the time she convinced me that June bugs tasted like chocolate, and I believed her… I believed her, until my mom caught me outside one day eating them.
“What on earth are you chewing on, boy?” she asked me while she took a sheet down from the line in the backyard.
“June bugs,” I replied, still munching.
“Darlene!” My mama yelled, stomping inside to deal with my sister.
Once in a great while we went to the lake, which is really only a few miles away but my mom hated it so much — she said it carried diseases, which could easily be true — that we only went when we had visitors.
That time it was my Aunt Gladys and weird older cousin Whitey.
We woke up early and instead of clothes my sisters put on their bathing suits, and I just wore my cut-off jeans which is what I imagine I would have worn anyway. When I got downstairs Mama and Aunt Gladys were already bickering while they made sandwiches.
It was a bright, hot day outside and Whitey and I immediately took off our t-shirts and flip flops, stepped over goose crap and tenderly entered the murky brown water.
That’s about when all the commotion started. TJ Willis was standing twenty feet or so from us, deeper in the water but only to his waist. He starts to yelling and waving his arms and diving under the water and coming back up. He was wearing a baseball cap, but it must have fallen off in the water.
It’s the day Eli Willis drowns in Yampertown Lake.
It’s also the day I came to know that I could make my wishes come true. And I’d be lying if I told you it was the last time I ever wished somebody would die.