I’ve always been fascinated by how childhood’s seemingly minor thresholds turn out to be major upheavals in how a child sees and understands the world, and it has been a common theme in my writing. Our growth from innocence to experience exacts a high cost, and it’s what we pay, willing or not, to become adults. Last Saturday, March 19, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my father, Frank Shell. I took one of the stories my dad told me about a lesson learned in his childhood and loosely transformed it into a work of fiction with several lessons. “Feeling the Burn” was originally published in Louisiana Literature*. I’d like readers’ responses on what was learned that hot summer day.
Feeling the Burn
“I was hoping we’d get a soda this afternoon.” Fate Taylor kicked a rock repeatedly along the dirt road, weaving side to side to follow its path.
“Now how would that happen?” Terrell, Fate’s older brother by thirteen months, sidestepped Fate’s rock.
“Tell me again how it tastes.” Fate’s bare feet, calloused to convey him through an Ozark summer, were unhampered by the small stones, though he avoided the larger pointed rocks.
Terrell shrugged and chewed his biscuit as they ambled toward the game. “It burns your throat. But the burn feels good.” He added the last with a rise in inflection, conveying he understood it didn’t make sense. Fate watched Terrell’s lips repeat the description he had heard many times. He ran his tongue over his lips again. The heat absorbed the moisture entirely. Terrell kicked Fate’s rock. “But you ain’t gonna get that burn today.”
“Maybe I will,” Fate stuck out his chin in defiance as he looked at his brother.
Both boys had finished the second grade two days earlier, and summer stretched before them like a luscious treat to swallow whole. The next day their father Leland made them chop and stack a hickory hit by lightning for firewood. Cutting into that rock-hard wood burned their shoulder, arm and back muscles. All four Taylor boys crawled into bed at night with nothing left in their bodies that could possibly make provision for their family. They rammed cedar fence posts in the ground, hoed the tomatoes and pole beans, and cleared the meadow of sassafras striplings.
But this afternoon, the local boys of Simms Creek would take on the county seat team of Winnsboro at a baseball game, and Terrell and Fate’s mother Mattie had said they could attend, provided they finished their chores and Leland agreed. That morning Terrell milked while Fate gathered the eggs. They carried their burdens to the cool of the spring house. They wiped sweaty hands on their overall legs, and strained the steaming milk through a white cloth into frosted Mason jars which they lidded carefully and lowered into the spring.
“Think if we sold some of the eggs and got a soda Ma’s miss them?” Fate asked
Terrell frowned as he examined then tossed an egg Fate had cracked. “You blew your chance last year.”
One Saturday late last November, Mattie had their oldest brother Willis harness Jep the mule and drive the family to Greeson’s store in the cart. She sold the pecans that her boys had gathered that morning. She handed each boy a nickel in front of the store. Terrell had purchased a Coca-Cola, bolted it in a few gulps, and then belched with pride and surprise as the burning sensation in his throat ripened. Fate also bought a Coke, but did not drink it immediately. He seated himself on the left end of the store porch and placed the bottle beside him. Terrell tossed a baseball in the air and caught it.
“Hey, think fast!” Terrell fired the ball toward Fate. The ball glanced off Fate’s fingers, knocked over the bottle, and broke it. The dry gray boards quickly soaked up the liquid. Fate rubbed his knuckles, blinked, and glared at his brother.
“Why didn’t you catch it?” Terrell mocked. That night, he described the curious sensation of drinking the cola to his mother. “Burned a nickel is what you done,” Leland said, as he sat at the table and whittled a sling shot for Terrell. Mattie tapped her pointer finger against her lips from behind Leland, and raised her eyebrows at her boys.
I won’t lose it next time, Fate whispered.