James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

“Trailer Trash” — Featured Short Story

Here’s the full, 4,000 word version of ‘Trailer Trash,’ my short story honored by being selected by both the Petigru Review, as well as the Saturday Evening Post in its 2012 Short Fiction contest, the disqualification of which is described here. This is one of a series of ‘Stories of Adolescence’ set in my fictional Edgewater County, alternating stories between a brother and a sister, Lucy (a/k/a ‘Sissy’) and Timmy Latham. Another story or two to go, including one that I finished only tonight called ‘Face at the Window,’ and we’ll have a nice little series of linked stories, all of which seek to skirt that ineffable line between the sweet and the sad, and to capture different moods, tones, and milestones of childhood in a place like Southern, rural Edgewater County.

Disclaimer: this is a submission copy and not a final-edited version, so please forgive any stylistic or technical flubs my eye skittered over. And, if you enjoy this story, please consider ordering a copy of the Petigru Review from the SC Writer’s Workshop—they will appreciate your support!

TRAILER TRASH

Nothing said summer like the end of school, and after 7th grade, no one was more ready than yours truly to be free of Ridgeland Middle, which prepped pimply, frecklefaced doofuses like me for James F. Byrnes High. At the beginning of the term I’d gotten into the only fight I’d ever had, which isn’t worth recounting because it was only big dumb Andy Dworkin, a brute who picked fights with everyone, and by semester’s end my heart had been broken by a would-be girlfriend, Shelby Fordham, so it’d been a season of conflict and disappointment. Far as I was concerned, the school year could take a flying leap.

In an annual tradition, that first week of June my grandfather took me down to the barber shop for us to get ourselves a trim, which we’d done each of the last two summers since he’d retired from the highway department. My folks both worked—daddy was produce manager at the IGA, and momma a seamstress supervisor on the line at the hosiery mill; both of them were bossy bosses who acted that way at home, too—so in the summers I spent a fair amount of time with my grandparents.

For now. I was about to be thirteen. Soon they’d have to start letting me stay alone after school, and all summer long.

Wouldn’t they?

At Halsey’s barber shop, I would see a different grandfather than the one I knew and loved. Here, Grandy—the other men called him Garland, his actual name—came off more relaxed and gregarious than around his adult children and their various rugrats and yard apes, my cousins from one county over who’d visit on Sundays for cookouts and yard games and filial fellowship. Around the family, Grandy’s was a taciturn and humorless presence, a private, tightlipped man inscrutably circumspect about making small talk. He seemed happiest sitting off by himself on the back porch, smoking and watching the sunset, alone but for the dogs. No one in the family appeared unduly concerned by the way he’d jump up from the supper or picnic table while still chewing his last bite of food, like he couldn’t wait to get on with his business—or else get away from us all.  Grandy. “He’s just set in his ways,” my grandmother would say in his defense.

One Sunday I asked Uncle Junior why Grandy kept to himself. He explained that Grandy’d suffered deprivations and horrors in the big war in which he’d fought—the world war they’d put on thirty-odd years before, one that men like Grandy and his barber shop brethren had all, seemingly, gone off together to fight. That, all these years later, he still suffered nightmares from what he’d experienced.

“Don’t ask him to talk about it, though,” my uncle cautioned. Uncle Junior was a joker, but about this he seemed deadly serious. “From what he told me, Grandy’s seen things that no one should ever have to.”

Not the best way to put off a kid whose imagination raced at the thought of a greater world outside Edgewater County, a boy whose curiosity simmered inside like a gas burner on low flame.

So, against his advice, I broke down and tried. When I went to cajole Grandy into talking about the war, though, he became angry, madder than I’d ever seen him. He cursed and told me to look it up in my school books. After that disturbing incident—Grandy was usually sweet and kind, never a cross word to me otherwise—I left the war alone.

#

In the barber shop, amidst cigarette smoke and newspapers and coffee and the smell of the blue antiseptic liquid in which the combs sat sterilizing, I flipped through a racing magazine and laughed at ribald jokes I didn’t fully understand, including ones told by my own grandfather, using language I knew would never pass muster under my churchgoing Grandmomma’s roof.

Mr. Halsey had finished up with Grandy, who’d gone first in the chair. “Come on, punkin,” he said, climbing down and shaking the barber’s hand. “Get on over here and let’s watch you get them ears lowered.”

How he embarrassed me by using such a precious, babyish nickname. But even my given name—Timmy—sounded like that of a little kid, too. That’s what being almost-thirteen’s like, especially at Mr. Halsey’s. There, I found myself surrounded not by other kids but old men who wore Vitalis in their hair, who still dressed and looked and acted as though it were 1958 instead of 1978. Who’d gone overseas, and killed Germans and Japanese. In class, I was the second tallest boy, sometimes mistaken for an eighth grader. At Halsey’s Barber & Shave, I wasn’t anything but a punkin who still had his babyfat.

The sound of soft syrupy steel guitars came from the old radio sitting on a shelf over the sink. WABA sounded the hour, and then the CBS Radio Network newsman came on, reporting what President Carter had said about the Soviet Union and the SALT talks. The old men ceased joking and began yakking about grownup matters. They cursed the ruthless, communist Russians and said things like Lord have mercy, I hope one of these days we don’t end up sending boys over yonder.

“Ain’t gonna be the Russians,” Rabbit Pettus said, sucking his teeth. “No sir. This time it’s gonna be us and the Jews against the Arabs and Persians, in the desert, and that’s going to be the big war to end all wars. Read your Bible, fellas. It’s all in there.”

“P’shaw,” Grandy said, starting off a fresh round of semi-heated discussion about warmaking and world politics that I didn’t so much not understand as not give a durn toot about—I was almost-thirteen. There’d be time enough for all that later.

Mr. Halsey pulled the cape around my neck, snapping it tight. He spun the chair so that I faced the large mirror. In its reflection I saw a panel of sage and wizened judges, the peanut gallery composed of my Grandy and his buddies all sitting with their legs crossed and heavy leather shoes on their big feet. Behind them, through the plate glass window looking onto the town green, were their cars all lined up. Grandy’s brand new Riveria, which with its slanted trunk, appeared as a polished, angular royal blue shark of an automobile.

The barber contemplated my nubby noggin. “What say we give this young’un a buzz cut, like Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle?”

“No way, José,” I said, which cracked him up. All my friends had shaggy hair, shaggy as they—we—could get away with, and even sideburns for those of us whose whiskers were starting to fill in. “Like last time—just above my ears, please.”

“Gonna be a hot one this year, son,” Grandy advised, belching into a handkerchief he’d produced out of a pocket of his trousers. “I’d cut it short.”

“High and tight sounds right to me,” Rabbit said to a general murmuring of assent.

No,” I pleaded, embarrassed anew by my own outburst.

“All right, all right,” Mr. Halsey said, patting me on the shoulder. “Don’t let no one else decide what your hair ought’n to look like. Within reason, of course,” he added.

The news ended and the next country song started up. The barber hummed to himself and began hacking at my undeniably unruly brown mop, which hadn’t been cut since before Easter. Snip snip snip, auburn ringlets tumbling down to the black and white checkerboard floor; the toes of my Keds, worn and stained amber by the red clay of the riverbank where we’d gone fishing yesterday, peeked out from beneath the cape.

I thought about Shelby, who’d said she would meet me at the Spring Dance as my date, but then showed up holding hands with Cecil Waugh, of all people, a dumb football player chubbier than I was. My heart hurt, but it could have been worse—she might have shown up with Cecil’s twin brother Harlem, the lesser of the pair in both looks and smarts. Despite the betrayal, I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“You know, what a boy like this needs,” my barber said, pausing to take a thoughtful, deep drag from the cigarette he kept clamped in a wrinkled corner of his mouth, squinting down through the drifting smoke as he cut heads, “is somebody to put him to work for the summer. Good, honest work.”

Rabbit—a giant of a man who owned The Dixie, a restaurant and tavern across the green—agreed in his gravelly Carolina brogue. “Good honest work puts meat on a boy’s bones. Character in the gut.”

Burnham Sykes, who I thought of as the scariest, sourest man in Edgewater County, rattled his newspaper and sucked snot back into his sinuses. As he spoke a loose gray waddle jiggled under his chin, making him look like a nasty freckled catfish somebody’d drug up out of the river. “What in the hale would you know about honest work, Pettus?”

“Kiss my foot,” Rabbit said. They were best friends, Burnham and Rabbit. I’d heard this kind of banter before, could almost recite it.

“Burnie,” my Grandy said, smacking Sykes on the leg with a rolled up Field & Stream, “I’m betting a man like you’s got all manner of work for a young buck like this.”

Sykes cut his eyes at me over the Edgewater Advocate he’d been perusing. He spoke in an aristocratic, lowcountry cadence that flowed lazily like a river, one untroubled by the passage of time it took for its statements to come to full articulation. “Matter of fact . . . I reckon I might would. Certainly. Work suitable for an industrious and healthy boy like Timmy . . . good, hard, manual labor . . . that is what’s being suggested, here. Is it not?”

Everyone but me agreed that such endeavor was precisely what they had in mind.

Nevin Footwater Sr., blind and lame, rapped his cane against the tile floor. Everyone quieted. He intoned, “A wiser man than me once said, ‘Work will make you free.’”

Murmuring and head-nodding. “If you say so, old fart,” Mr. Halsey mumbled where only I could hear him.

Sounded like horse hockey to me, as Col. Potter on M*A*S*H would have put it. Only many years later would I discover the actual source of old man Footwater’s purported wisdom: an inscription that greeted doomed detainees upon their arrival at the iron gates leading into Auschwitz.

“I thought ‘Manuel Labor’ was the Mexican ambassador,” Grandy quipped to amused approbation. “But seriously. What you got for this little man to work on, Burnie?”

I felt terrified, but also knew that having a job meant money—and if I had to work for Burnham Sykes, I intended to get paid. Money I could use to take a second stab at Shelby, ask her on a real date. The PG-rated Saturday Night Fever, an edited version re-released so that the pubescent Shelbys of the world didn’t have to sneak in to watch John Travolta dance, was playing that week at the Palmetto, the marquee of which I could see sitting cattycorner across the town green from the barber shop. “How much you gonna give me?”

He put down his paper, smacked his fish-lips and smiled crookedly like a villain in a 007 movie. “For a young’un of your age and experience . . .? Well, now. I’d say a dollar an hour’d be more than fair to ‘give’ you, as you put it.”

“Now Burnie, that ain’t no decent living wage,” Mr. Halsey said, putting his fingertips on my temples and turning my head back around so that he could finish. “What you really gonna pay this here white man?”

“‘Living wage?’” Sykes mocked. “You sound like Ted Kennedy, sir. For young Timothy here, I offer a base pay of a dollar an hour, and at the end of the shift we’ll see about a performance bonus, of an amount to be determined based upon my evaluation of the work in question.”

“Wellsir, my grandbaby ain’t got nothing else to do on this long afternoon—do you, punkin?” Grandy smiled and crinkled his warm, loving eyes.

“I’m not sure I want to work today,” which made the men guffaw and stamp their feet.

The barber spun the chair around and looked at me, brandishing his snipping scissors. “Tim, the unfortunate reality is that you’re likely to have to get up and go to work every day for the rest of your life, so I say, might as well get used to it. Isn’t that so, boys?”

“If that ain’t the god’s truth,” Rabbit said, “I don’t know what is.”

We stayed awhile longer. The men all sat there, smoking and reading and jacking their jaws about this and that. I hoped by the time we left everyone would have forgotten this business about me going to work for Mr. Sykes.

But nobody forgot anything, and as we went to leave, Grandy told my new boss I’d be along soon as we were done with lunch. “Where you want him? The car lot?”

Mr. Sykes owned a number of businesses and properties. The mean old man narrowed his eyes at me. “Send him over yonder to Mayfield Acres instead.”

Gulp. Mayfield Acres, despite its bucolic sounding name, was not a nice place.

#

Careful and cautious like I’d been taught, I rode my bike down the side of Highway 79, then cut through a stand of longleaf pines and a couple of dirt roads. Mayfield Acres was a trailer park off River Road where what my folks called ‘white trash’ lived—poor people. Black people had their own trailer park, but it was on the other side of the river. The schools weren’t segregated, but the rest of Edgewater County often still seemed that way—the black churches, the black honkytonks, the black grocery store.

I parked my bike and crept inside a little shack with peeling paint and a tin roof on which hung a weathered sign reading Front Office. Inside I saw Mr. Sykes standing over a plump, sadfaced older teenage girl sitting at the desk. “What do you mean you already gave them their deposit back—have you inspected that unit?”

Sniffling and redeyed as though about to boohoo, she croaked in a tiny, chastened voice, “But but but Mr. Sykes, they told me you’d done signed off on their trailer!”

“God durn your bubbleheaded little butt.” He turned to me. “Boy, you and your granddaddy got yourselves some good timing—come along with me, now.”

He opened a closet and got out a bucket, a mop, some rags and a grungy, half-empty bottle of 409, pushing me out the door. Taking such strides with his long skinny legs that I could barely keep up, he led me through the trailer park.

What I saw:

Laundry hanging on lines, broken down cars, overweight women sitting on makeshift wooden porches, kids playing kickball in the dusty dirt, flies buzzing around trash cans, all the trees cut down, sleeping mutts flopped in the sandy earth. My grandparents’ yard was an Eden of azaleas and flowers and majestic oaks, but this looked and felt to me like a prison camp. Maybe Mr. Footwater had been more right than wrong with his Auschwitz aphorism, but at the time all I knew was that if work would make me free of Mayfield Acres, I wanted to get started. What an awful place. I supposed people lived where they were able.

I recognized one or two of the kids, waved to them. They didn’t wave back, only stared at me walking around with Mr. Sykes.

We stopped in front of a not-bad trailer. The scrubby yellowed grass around it needed mowing, though. Was that it? Mowing this little plot? I could run a mower like nobody’s business. It wouldn’t even take me an hour.

But I wouldn’t get off so easy: “Look here, boy: There was a bunch of no-good son of a bitches living in here who skipped out on me, and I need you to put this trailer looking shipshape so’s I can set to renting it out again. Think you can handle that?”

I wasn’t sure, but I nodded and said uh-huh. He pushed open the door. The inside looked dark and gloomy, a mysterious cave.

“Now, I don’t reckon I need to explain how to clean, do I, boy?

I shook my head.

“Get to it, then.”

Once inside, my eyes adjusted to take in a disaster area—the tenants had left an overflowing trash can with a cloud of gnats and flies swarming all around, the carpets covered in dog hair and crumbs, and a kitchen sink and countertops speckled with mysterious green crud. The smell was a mix of rotting garbage and that weird chemical odor that mobile homes always seemed to have.

I was in shock. My mother and grandmother both kept spotless houses. “Mr. Sykes, a dollar an hour’s not—”

He held up a hand. “All right, all right, listen here: you clean this up right, and I’ll give you twenty dollars. It won’t take you all that long. Helluva a lot more than the minimum wage—which in your case is a standard I’m not legally obligated to uphold.”

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, but a double sawbuck sounded like real money. I didn’t never ever have a whole twenty in my pocket, except maybe at birthday-money time, which this year would be while we were at Myrtle Beach—hoo, boy! “Twenty bucks? Really?”

“If you don’t get going, you’ll be getting diddley-squat.”

I shook the bottle of 409 and sprayed a few weak clouds of vapor onto the creeping crud in the sink. “I might need some more of this.”

He grunted. “I’ll send Janice out for provisions—Mr. Clean, some paper towels, bathroom foam and maybe some of those blue pucks for the toilet, too. And I’ll bring back a shopvac. On a cleanup job like this, you always vacuum last, backing your way out the door,” he pantomimed, “so as to leave the interior spotless and pristine and ready to show. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very good.” And he was gone.

#

I drew in a big-boy breath and set to work. I began with the fridge. The power had been off, so inside was a damp, horrid mess of decomposing food: vegetables rotting in the bin, a carton of sour milk two weeks out of date, a dozen eggs, a half-eaten ham sandwich turning fuzzy and green, ketchups, mustards, and a couple of brown pears that were soft and leaking fluid. I gagged and started chucking food into the garbage can; the carton of eggs bounced off and dropped onto the floor, breaking open. I cussed. I sweated. I dragged the leaking, full trashbag outside and found a fresh one under the sink, scattering a colony of roachbugs when I opened the cabinet. I picked up the eggs and felt like crying.

Twenty dollars or not, this was degrading and sickening. I imagined all my friends—and Shelby—pointing and laughing at me for having gotten myself into this literal mess.

But Mr. Sykes, and Grandy, were counting on me to do a good job. A grownup’s job. I went to prop open the front door, tried to get some air moving.

Mr. Sykes came back in a few minutes with a vacuum cleaner, a jug of ammonia, and two double rolls of Brawny paper towels. I was pleased—as depicted in numerous daytime television commercials, these towels were capable of soaking up entire messes all at once.

Glancing over the countertops and peeking into the avocado green fridge, he inspected my progress. “Not bad, m’boy, not bad at all. Got to get in the corners a little better, though. Take your squirt bottle and mix this ammonia half and half with water.”

I did so, feeling lightheaded as fumes went straight up my nose. I swayed on my feet and thought I’d pass out, but I hid this condition from Mr. Sykes.

“Back in a bit,” he said, tromping out onto the deck and down the steps.

I retched into the sink I’d just begun to get clean.

#

Dripping with a sheen of sweat that in the humid afternoon had nowhere to evaporate to, I quit the kitchen and started on the bathroom—the black stuff around the toilet base caused me to swoon anew, but after soaking it with the ammonia, it mopped up pretty easily.

Janice showed up with more cleaning supplies and a couple of sandwiches and ice-cold Co-colas—the big bottles. “Mr. Sykes says for you to take you a break, sugar. And for-me-to-help-you fin-nish,” she added in a resigned, mopey cadence, her lower lip protruding.

I washed my hands and arms. We stood outside in the hot sun drinking our fizzy pop and eating chicken salad made with too much goopy mayonnaise and big chunks of celery, which I hated but couldn’t spit out, not in front of Janice.

She reached around and tugged at her short-shorts, which even by the fashion standards of the day seemed one size too small. “How bad is it?”

I tried to play it cool, but my words tumbled out in an awkward rush. “Not as bad as before Mr. Sykes put me—had me—get on it.”

She seemed skeptical. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

We went back in and I set to mopping. Janice opened the fridge. “Foo-wee.” She sprayed another dose of extra-strength cleaner inside.

Working alongside Janice made me feel like a grownup—she wasn’t barking orders at me the way my Daddy would when I was raking the yard. We were peers, both being paid by Mr. Sykes.

Then, I fantasized that Janice and I were married, and that at some point we were going to do other things married people do, which I didn’t fully understand but that caused a mysterious stirring inside me—Shelby Fordham had the same effect—a sensation I sought to quell by thinking about how much I despised the folks who’d left behind this mess.

Janice was like a whirlwind, and in less than an hour we had it squared away but for vacuuming, which I started to do. I went to plug it in, but there wasn’t any power.

“Dang,” Janice said. “None of us thought of that, did we? Just gather up all the cleaning stuff and lock it up behind you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She snorted and scoffed. “Don’t you call me ‘ma’am,’ little boy. I ain’t that much older than you.”

I finished and trudged back up to the office with the mop and rags and leftover paper towels. Janice met me outside and handed me an envelope, told me how much she enjoyed working with me, then laughed like it was some kind of joke.

An Iroc-Z driven by a thicknecked, high school football jock who I supposed was her boyfriend pulled into the dusty turnaround in front of the office. She got in without saying goodbye and they peeled out. At the last second, Janice winked and waved to me with her pretty painted nails. I fantasized that she wanted to be my girlfriend, but hadn’t known how to break the ice.

I opened the envelope. Inside, I found money, and a note:

5 hours x 1 dollar/hr = 5.00 

plus 20.00 bonus

Good job, boy

A bonus—and yet, I thought to myself, he hadn’t come back to check on my work. In any case, the money in my hand felt like the fortune of a king.

Filthy and exhausted, I pedaled back to Grandy’s. Greeting me on the front porch with two cold, sweating glasses of sweet tea adorned with sprigs of fresh mint, he asked me how my first day at work had been, and not what I’d done, but rather how much I’d been given by old Burnie Sykes, who was the kind of skinflint people said probably still had the first dime he ever made.

“How’s it feel to have your own money?”

I told my grandfather it felt good. And unlike Grandy, who’d been sent to Europe either to kill or be killed, if the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting a twenty in my hand after cleaning up some nasty person’s mobile home, life would probably end up pretty darn sweet and easy.

“Don’t just fritter it away, now—spend it on something that matters.”

I would. I was going to call Shelby, maybe as soon as that night. Saturday Night Fever would only be playing at the Palmetto for a few more days. The summer of my almost-thirteenth year wouldn’t last forever.

– END –

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

5 Replies

  1. angel prosser

    Awesome reading…would love to keep reading the story. I love it when you can actually see it happening in your mind, due to the descriptive and colorful way of writing….Loved this one Don!

  2. Greg Bates

    Yes! Great stuff. I was completely absorbed into the scene and transported back to my own first job. Terrific use of language and such a smooth flow. A great moment in Timmy’s life.

  3. The replacement story I sent in to the SEP is the same character’s experience with a first kiss.

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