Thursday, April 11, 2013

Atomic Shadows

There were two big old boys in the neighborhood living a street over from us on Lafaso, Mert and Dick Tugwell, older, maybe my brother Wayne’s age or maybe even older than that. They are nice guys, fun-loving, always horsing around with the younger kids, and I am one of those one day, doing whatever, maybe trying to tackle one of them by wrapping arms and legs around one of their stout legs. One of the Tugwell brothers reaches down and pries me off, grabbing my legs with one hand and the other hand on the back of my neck, lifting me up and making gorilla noises like he is going to slam me to the ground. When he does release me on my feet, I am aware of slight pain under my ears, his thumb and middle finger pressing under my ears while suspending me above his head, like some native in a Tarzan movie holding up a sacrificial child. It is not long before there are rounded lumps under each ear the size of a tennis ball. What is lost is whether I go to the doctor then or the next day or go quickly to the emergency room. The next distinct shadow is being in one of the hospital rooms, one bed only, windows always presenting a view of home.
Whatever my illness is—ruptured lymph nodes or salivary glands?—it keeps me in the hospital as a pampered patient for weeks, doctors coming and going and hushed whispers to my mother, nurses coming and going and a daily series of injections in my buttocks, first one cheek and turn the other, please. There are two other particular shadows imprinted during that time.
After several days, my backside looks like a human dartboard, a chaotic pattern of blue on both cheeks like bruised fruit. And the injections sting and the hurt lingers. Finally one of the nurses starts giving me a sharp slap on whatever cheek is up for duty right before the injection. It works, her sharp swat masking what quickly follows. Bless you, nurse-angel, whoever you are.
The other ghost image is books—probably many of them comic books—scattered always over the bed, on the nightstand, stacked on the window ledge. There is no television in the room, I don’t think, I would remember that, so the days are spent in adventures far beyond the hospital room, with Batman and Robin and Superman in thrilling deeds of capturing criminals and rescuing always grateful ladies in distress. There is the absolute joy also of my mother reading to me, being able to lie back on the pillows and watch the changing sky while those escapades play in my head, the imagined stories fulfilling some need in me I didn’t know I had, allowing me to leave behind any pain in my neck and backside, presenting an escape route from the hard truths of growing up in the neighborhood nearby.


  1. Yeah, I remember those two. Mert went on to become a post-modernist poet and his brother Dick was arrested in Akron for impersonating an Egyptian. Well told little piece of Baton Rouge childhood I somehow managed to miss hearing about.

  2. Frank McCourt's miserable Irish Catholic childhood sounds like a walk in the park compared to the Louisiana childhood. I see why there are such wonderful Southern writers.
    Nice to see you back. We've missed you.

  3. Raymond, had I known you back then, I would have been able to give Mert back what he had given you. I've know Mert for 60+- years. Nice guy, loveable bully. That was back in my younger, verile, athletic days. Too late now. Today is my older, weaker, feeble days.

    Hadn't seen or heard from Mert in many years. Do you know if he is still with us?