Grandma Maggie elbowed her 8-year-old grandson sharply in the ribs. "Don't stare at the little people, Byron,'' she hissed. Byron glanced away from the tiny grownups in line to receive Holy Communion at the 8 o'clock Mass. Wizard of Oz was Byron's favorite movie, and he dreamed of having a Munchkin friend. He gawked again. This time, Grandma Maggie pinched his forearm until his eyes watered.
Grandma Maggie pinched, hit and twisted the ears of small boys with abandon. Byron loved her anyway. She spoke with a brogue. She wore her auburn hair in twin braids, smoked Pall Malls and drank whiskey. She made funny faces and danced the jig.
She spent every winter with Byron's family, the Flynns, in Florida, arriving on the Orange Blossom Special at Thanksgiving and staying until Ash Wednesday. Byron looked forward to the visits because Grandma Maggie always brought candy from New York.
Christmas was tomorrow. On the walk home from Mass, Grandma Maggie hummed Silent Night while Byron daydreamed about Munchkin friends. He kicked stones and chased a lizard. Finally, he picked up a crooked stick, brushed Grandma's ankle and yelled "Snake!''
Her first impulse was to climb a coconut tree. Her second impulse, and the one she followed, was to swing her purse at Byron's head as she chased him down the block. As Byron fell laughing at the corner, she swatted his behind. He refused to cry, and she swatted him again. Then she started laughing with him.
They laughed all the way into the house. A few minutes later, Grandma called him into her room. "Byron, St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland for good reason. He didn't like snakes, and I don't like snakes. Never do that again!''
"I'm sorry I scared you, Grandma.''
"I'm sorry I hit you, love. Look, I have an early Christmas present for you."
From her purse she withdrew a small rectangular box. Byron read the letters — B-A-R-L-O-W — but didn't know what they meant.
Inside the box was about the best pocketknife he had ever seen.
The Barlow knife had one silver blade and the words "Davy Crockett" inscribed on the black handle. Byron loved Davy Crockett more than even Munchkins. Holding the knife, he felt he could take on a bear. With his knife, he would never be afraid again.
"I don't know if you're old enough to have a knife,'' Grandma said, "but I think you're a big boy now. You'll be careful with it, won't you, love?''
• • •
In other parts of the country, kids were making snowmen and wearing heavy suits and galoshes on Christmas Eve. Not in Florida. Byron changed into his play clothes, a pair of brown shorts. Even in winter, Florida boys often did without shirts and shoes.
In the kitchen, he hugged his mother around her waist.
"Did you have fun with Grandma?'' Ma asked. Byron didn't dare tell her about the way he had stared at the Munchkins.
"Yeah, we had fun.''
Ma was cooking Christmas Eve supper. On the menu was mangrove snapper, creamed potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
"Do I have to eat fish?'' Byron whined, making a gagging sound.
"Yes you have to eat the fish, you pill!'' Ma said, swatting him gently with a wooden spoon. "You'll eat the fish if you want to have Christmas cookies.''
"What kind of cookies?''
"Get out of here with your questions!'' Ma erupted, pretending to be angry.
In the back yard, Byron pulled out his new knife and threw it at a coconut tree. It bounced off the hard trunk. Mrs. Crespo, the next-door neighbor, had a grove of banana trees. Byron stabbed the fleshy banana tree bark as if it were an alligator's belly.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?''
He jumped 10 feet when he heard Dad's mad voice behind him.
"Nothing,'' Byron said, hiding the knife.
"I could use some help in the yard,'' Dad said.
Byron could tell his dad's mood by the tone of his voice.
Byron's dad was a musician, a guitar player, which meant he worked mostly nights, if he worked at all. Lately he'd been making ends meet by cutting grass and trimming hedges in the neighborhood. He'd even removed a hornet's nest from Miss Olive's tree and got stung in the bargain. That night his mood was especially foul.
When Bill Flynn was working, he happily swung Ma around the kitchen. He'd sit on the couch, strum his guitar and sing Tennessee Waltz. On Saturday, when he was in a good mood, he'd take Byron fishing for snapper at the bay seawall. Out of work, he stomped around, muttered to himself and even drank highballs at dinner. One afternoon, when Byron was so wrapped up in play he came home late for supper, Dad dragged him into the bedroom, yanked down his pants and spanked him with a belt. Byron screamed so loud Grandma Maggie hammered on the door to make her son-in-law stop. A year had passed, but Byron still thought about the spanking, sometimes until his stomach hurt.
The Flynns were poor, but at least they had the nicest yard on the block. Bill Flynn's hobby was growing things. "Your husband has a green thumb,'' Byron heard his grandma tell Ma. As far as Byron could tell, Dad's thumb was pink. Dad grew mango, papaya and avocado trees. His Temple orange always bore fruit. Dad's favorite time in the yard was December, when the leaves on his long poinsettia hedge turned red and neighbors dropped by to admire them. At night, Byron's dad illuminated his poinsettias with a spotlight.
"Mary Grace, come see this!'' he'd call, and Byron's ma would join her husband at the window. "Another car just slowed down to look at my poinsettias.''
• • •
As Byron finished raking, Dad headed into the house. Byron took out his knife again. He wished there was rope that needed cutting. He plucked an orange from the backyard tree and sliced it in half, pleased with his knife's sharp blade. He sucked on the orange, but Temples were never sweet until February.
The poinsettia hedge stretched along the porch at least 40 feet. Byron counted the bushes. There were 20 plants, spaced evenly, from the front door to his bedroom window. Byron could smell fertilizer. Dad fertilized his poinsettias four times a year. That's what made them special. That, and the watering, and the fact they were shaded by a big poinciana tree.
Byron wondered whether there were poinsettias in Ireland. He would have to ask Grandma Maggie. He wondered whether there were poinsettias in California, where Zorro lived. Byron always watched Zorro on TV. Zorro dressed in black and defended poor people with his sword. Byron's knife was too small to be a sword, but he pretended anyway.
He took a swipe at the nearest poinsettia. A red leaf, slashed in half, floated to the lawn, bleeding white sap. Byron slashed again. This time, the branch fell into the yard. His knife was as sharp as Ma's meat cleaver.
As Byron slaughtered Dad's prized poinsettias, he provided sound effects to accompany the action. "Weesh weesh weesh,'' Byron hissed, and his knife metamorphosed into Zorro's sword. He hacked Zorro's trademark Z into the britches of hapless Sgt. Garcia.
• • •
It was as if the world had stopped. Byron could hear no birds singing or wind rattling the palm fronds. Now, what he had done to Dad's poinsettias washed over him like burning tar.
He ran. He ran past the homes of the Crespos and the Murphys, the Quinns and the Domingos. In full panic, he sprinted across Sixth Avenue without looking both ways. Brakes squealed, but he made it to the other side, and he ran to the bridge that spanned the canal.
He would have to spend the rest of his life under the bridge. The bridge had always been his special place, cool in the summer, dry in a rain, a place where he could see manatees in the winter. He often hid under the bridge during Dad's bad moods. He'd lie on his belly and gaze into the water and watch the blue crabs. If he poked them with a stick, they'd hold up their claws like boxing gloves.
He was hungry. He wished he had kept the sour orange. He wished he had stopped to grab his fishing pole. He wished he had left Dad's poinsettias alone. He thought about throwing the knife into the water. But he couldn't. He loved his knife. Maybe he should lie.
His dad was going to strap him again. Even Grandma wouldn't be able to stop him this time. Byron's eyes overflowed with tears.
He heard the scrape of feet and felt faint. Maybe Dad had followed. He'd strap him under the bridge and throw him into the black water.
It wasn't Dad. It was Mister Walter, a neighbor from the next block, with his cane pole and box of worms. Mister Walter was a retired mailman from Alabama who said "ain't." Sometimes Mister Walter and Byron played checkers and ate corn bread on Mister Walter's porch.
"What are you doing here, son?'' Mister Walter asked.
"I'm hiding. Dad is going to kill me.''
Mister Walter chuckled.
"He ain't going to kill you no matter what you done. What you done?''
"I cut down his poinsettias with my new Davy Crockett knife, Mister Walter.''
Mister Walter turned pale and whistled a serious whistle.
"Why you do that?''
"I was playing Zorro.''
Byron tried to explain Zorro. Mister Walter dismissed Zorro with a wave of his hand.
"Son, you got to go home and 'fess up.''
"He's going to whip me with the belt.''
"Maybe he is. But you done wrong, and you got to admit it.''
"I'm too afraid.''
"You can do it. You be a man about it. And if he licks you, you have to take it.''
Byron started sobbing.
"Mister Walter, I'm too afraid. Can I live with you and Miss Peggy?''
"No, you can't live with us. You got to go home and make peace with your daddy. Now go ahead and do it. I mean it. Go. NOW!''
• • •
He didn't go right home. He walked around the block again and again for hours. It was full dark when he stepped into the yard. Light from the living room spilled onto the lawn where he could see the slaughtered poinsettia clippings Dad had raked into a neat pile. Byron tiptoed across the porch and peeked into the window. In the speckled light from the television he could see Grandma Maggie and Ma, sitting together on the sofa in their bathrobes with their hair in curlers. Dad was nowhere in sight.
Byron opened the door and stepped inside.
Grandma Maggie and Ma stopped watching Lawrence Welk and watched him instead.
"Where have you been?''
"I was at the bridge. Mister Walter was there.''
"You missed supper.''
Ma headed for the kitchen and came out with a plate. Byron was going to have to eat the cold fish without complaint. "Eat fast,'' Ma advised. "Your dad wants to talk to you about what you did. He isn't happy.''
Suddenly Byron heard his dad's slippers on the linoleum and froze. Dad froze in return and stared at Byron long and hard. Byron trembled as he stared at the floor, his tongue tied by terror.
"Say something, Byron,'' Grandma Maggie ordered him.
"Daddy,'' Byron whispered in a cracked voice. "I'm real sorry I cut down your bushes.''
Dad stared at him in utter silence.
"I cut down your bushes with my new Davy Crockett knife, Daddy. I don't want it anymore. You can have my knife.''
Dad held the knife in his big hand. An hour that was actually a second dragged by.
"Byron, I don't need your knife,'' Dad finally said. "I have a knife of my own, and if you give me your knife you won't have one. So keep it. We'll talk about the poinsettias after Christmas. But right now, I need you to do me a favor.''
Dad walked to the corner of the room and plugged in the colored lights.
"I need you to help me decorate the tree.''
Dad hung the tiny glass balls on the top branches and Byron hung the bigger ones on the bottom. Grandma Maggie turned the volume up on Lawrence Welk. Her favorite Irish singer — the one she called "sweet voice"— sang Gesu Bambino.
When blossoms flower e'er 'mid the snow
Upon a winter night
Was born the Child, the Christmas Rose
The King of Love and Light.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.