Jody and Cody Riffee are probably the smartest people in town, not counting any of the eggheads who teach out at the college, though you wouldn't know it by their chosen field of employment. They both work at their granddaddy's Feed & Seed, doing nothing more mentally taxing than hauling giant sacks of All Purpose Cattle Mineral from truck to pallet and pallet to truck. They've got arms as finely muscled as a stallion's haunch, and their backs are as wide as tractor tires. Despite being so booksmart, they don't say much. "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir" are about the most you'll ever get from them on most days. Nonetheless, they graduated at the very top of their class—Cody first and Jody second. Or maybe it was the other way around. Hell, they're so hard to tell apart, being identical twins as they are. One of them has a front tooth that died and went gray after the other one punched him in the mouth, but nobody can remember which one swung and which one bled, so that little bit of information has never done anyone much good.
None of this has anything to do with what really concerns some folk, though, which is what they're up to in their free time. After work, you won't find them shooting pool at the Chaparral with the rest of the boys. No, they head back to the house they share on Estacado and they build stuff. The thing is, nobody knows what they're building because they've got blackout shades pulled down in every window, and they've never said boo about what they're up to. Occasionally they're seen hauling unmarked crates inside, but nothing ever comes back out. From the sidewalk, you can hear all sorts of tools being used, too—hammers and saws, drills and rivet guns, sanders and grinders. And it hardly ever stops. Their closest neighbors used to complain, but it never did any good because Sheriff Gilly—Uncle Del to them—refused to ever get involved. Now, after years of this, it's just something that is—the sun shines hot, the wind blows hard, fire ants sting like hell, and the Riffee boys make loud, mysterious noises late into the night.
"What if all they're doing is building furniture?" asked Cecil Peters. "Wouldn't that be a hoot? Maybe their house is full to bursting with nothing but china hutches and hall trees."
I laughed, but there's no chance of them just being obsessive woodworkers. If the Riffee boys weren't any smarter than a couple of fence posts, I wouldn't give them a thought, but because they're anything but dumb, I find it hard not to worry at least a little bit about what they might be up to. I keep these worries to himself, though, because I don't want to sound like an old biddy. Meanwhile I pray I'm wrong about the brothers having dug a tunnel under the street, one that leads to their very own little Abu Ghraib, where all of our town's missing have gone to die.
Unlike Royal Franklin's limp, Kirby Stout's is due to no fault of his own, which is what makes it sad instead of funny. What else makes it sad is that Kirby was the starting halfback both years—the only years—we won State. In fact, the last time he donned the tan and red, he ran for two touchdowns in the championship game against the Natalia Mustangs. Lord, what a game that was!
Cliff got a scholarship to A&M (not that it did him any good, but that's another story), but Kirby got no offers from anybody, which left him no choice but to take a job busing tables at Manuel's, since, God bless him, he wasn't smart enough to come in out of the rain, not that it ever did. Everybody still loved him for all he'd done, though, and that's why folks would slip him a little something extra at lunch whenever he came around with his gray plastic tub to gather up the empty plates and whatnot.
It was on his way to Manuel's one morning that Belinda Van Sickle hit him with her car as he was crossing the street. Now, Belinda had no business still being behind the wheel at her advanced age, but nobody'd had the nerve to ask her to hand over her license and keys, not even Sheriff Gilly.
"I don't get paid enough to try something like that," he said. "Give me Arab terrorists any old day."
Belinda wasn't driving all that fast, but she was still going fast enough when she hit Kirby that he flew up onto the hood of her 1967 Ford Country Squire. It was June, and since her car didn't have air conditioning (not that she would've used it, being sure as she was that it caused pneumonia), her windows were rolled down. With Kirby flopped across her hood, she leaned her head out and shrieked, "Get off my car, you goddamned son of a bitch!"
Had it stopped with that, Kirby would've been nothing but embarrassed, angry, and bruised, but it didn't. Instead, Belinda hit the gas and then the brake in quick succession, which sent Kirby flying through the air like a sorry rag doll. When he hit the cement, he landed with his right leg twisted beneath him, and Trey Newhouse, who happened to be standing on the corner with a toothpick dangling between his lips, heard the snap and pop of breaking bones.
"If I was the fainting type," Trey said later, "that sound would've done me in. It was like a handful of dry spaghetti getting snapped in half, but there was a nasty wetness to it, too."
By the time he got to Kirby there in the street, Belinda had motored off. Trey drove him to Dr. Mahan's office as quickly as he could, and Dr. Mahan fixed Kirby up, setting his leg and giving him pain medication and so forth, but Dr. Mahan's never been the world's greatest doctor (which is why he has his practice where he does, I suppose, and not in some big city), so Kirby's leg ended up healing all whomper-jawed.
Sheriff Gilly had no choice at this point but to take Belinda's license away and charge her with a hit-and-run, but she just laughed and said, "You planning to throw an old lady in the hoosegow?"
While Kirby couldn't've appreciated getting crippled for life, the story of his accident, thanks to Trey's account of it, has made him almost as popular around town as he'd been in his pigskin days. Everybody loves having any excuse to hail him:
"Hey, you goddamned son of a bitch, how you doing this morning?"
"What can I do you for, you goddamned son of a bitch?"
"Merry Christmas, you goddamned son of a bitch!"
Understand that they don't do this to be hateful. Despite the outcome, which they find regrettable, they simply find the story of his maiming funny. To be honest, it's gotten to the point where people have a hard time even remembering the goddamned son of a bitch's real name whenever they see him dragging about.
When Cliff Retzlaff was the quarterback the two years we won State, every brass ring in the world was his for the swiping, including the Homecoming Queen and all of her court. Universities across the country, but especially here in Texas, were chomping at the bit to get his scribble on a letter of intent. Eventually he committed to A&M, much to the delight of Aggies everywhere, and everyone swore that he'd be the King of College Station before he even got the chance to skip his first class.
The day he left for training camp at the end of July, the town sent him off in fine style. The Yonder High band played the "Aggie War Hymn," and the cheerleaders jumped and shrieked and shook their pompoms. But then, not three weeks later, he was back. He'd been kicked off the team for punching the head coach in the craw. His big chance had ended quicker than a New York minute.
"He said I was playing like a tea sipper," Cliff explained to me, "so I gave him what for."
His mother got him a job at Flood's Sand & Gravel, but Mr. Flood fired him three days later for getting high on gasoline fumes during lunch. He had apparently filled his lunch thermos with unleaded.
Our blue chip hero was unraveling. Or maybe he'd always been a huffer of things known for messing with your brain like paint thinner and hairspray and lighter fluid. Who knows, maybe that was what had made him such a good quarterback, getting high on stuff like that, and Coach had just looked the other way. Regardless, ever since getting fired from Flood's, Cliff has done nothing but ride around town on a green bicycle with a banana seat like he's eight years old again. He's even been caught siphoning gas out of trucks with a hose. It's gotten to where you can smell him coming before you see him. Nowadays, he's nothing but bone and hide, and he can't hardly walk straight. Once upon a time, he shook off seven Hawley Bearcats on a fourth down scamper for the game-winning touchdown with time running out. Nowadays, he trips over curbs and then cusses them out for moving into his path. I swear, the sight of him's enough to make a grown man weep, but what goes around comes around. He shouldn't've called me that name back when we were in third grade.
Title image "Barnyard Folly" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.