At dinner that night, Turner was the last one to be seated. He was usually the first. Cason, who was always last, was first, eager to crow about the day. Turner stared at his little bowl of sliced cucumbers and swirled the oil and vinegar and black pepper around in circles, trying to make the oil and the vinegar mix.
The house was one of the few that had survived the Great Storm of 1900. Its floors were made out of longleaf pine from trees that were already over a hundred years old when they had been milled into boards, so that now they were so hard you couldn’t penetrate them with a nail and a five-pound hammer.
The house had degenerated into a dilapidated rental, with the original heavy cloth wallpaper still tacked to the walls. It was a floral pattern of light green prints that had faded into brown on a once-white background which had itself become a faint, uneven yellow. The curlicues of the flowers were so intricate that Turner could stare at them and lose himself in their folds and twists and turns, forever if need be.
He could tell that tonight was going to be a wallpaper night.
“Did you boys have fun on your bikes today?” Mom asked.
“I rode over some roots and a big crack and down to the end of the street and jumped off a curb!” Cason bragged. “And I rode around the garden five times and rode over some more roots and out in the alley!”
“Did you have fun, too, Turner?” she asked.
Turner vaguely heard something as the cucumbers winked back at him and he tried to spear an oil bubble with his fork. “Huh?” he said.
“Turner didn’t have no fun!” Cason said with glee. “He was a grandpa chickensissy!”
“A what?” asked Pops.
“A grandpa chickensissy!” Cason was so happy with this new word, he had already made up a little jingle that went “I’m so prissy like a grandpa chickensissy.” He had put it to a little tune and had been humming it all afternoon. Even though it was directed at him, Turner loved everything Cason did and had started humming it too, against his will.
“What in the world is that?” asked Mom.
“A grandpa chickensissy is a sissy who’s too chicken to take off his training wheels and so he keeps falling like a crybaby and he does it for a hundred years ’til he’s a old man and then he’s a grandpa chickensissy!” Cason was so pleased with the definition he looked like he would bust open from pride.
“Don’t call your brother names,” Pops said.
“Turner don’t care,” said Cason defiantly. “You’re a grandpa chickensissy, aintcha?”
Turner had climbed up into the wallpaper with his bowl of sliced cucumbers. He’d been given an important mission: Find the secret curlicue passageway that had the magic pepper grinder that would make the oil mix perfectly with the vinegar so there wouldn’t be any more oil bubbles. He’d gone way deep into the wallpaper now, and there was no turning back.
Inside his head there were three worlds. The first and the best world was Cason’s World, a place full of excitement and fun and madcap antics and hilarity and danger and adventure, but a place that always ended with him getting humiliated or getting a nasty pummeling or worse, like the time Cason shoved an entire unshelled pecan up his nose, or the time he shot him out of a tree with an arrow that had had its rubber tip removed, or the time he’d made Turner drink half a bottle of ammonia and then told Pops and he’d had to get his stomach pumped..
The second and worst world was Turner’s World, a terrifying place filled with angry adults and bad consequences and lots of places to do the wrong thing and people trying to make you eat anything besides cucumbers with oil and vinegar and black pepper for lunch and dinner, and scowling at him for always wanting Kaboom cereal for breakfast. The third and middle-best place was Pretend, where Turner could wander off and do whatever he wanted. The only down side to Pretend was that after a while he always got yanked back down into Turner’s World, and the longer he was in Pretend the rougher the landing in Turner’s World ended up being, although if you hung out very long in Cason’s world you were certain to get a whipping, no exceptions, ever.
“Aincha?” Cason said again.
“Ain’t I what?”
“Aincha a grandpa chickensissy?”
Turner took a moment to assess where he was. It looked like Cason’s World, because he was getting namecalled, but it might also be Turner’s World, because if he caused a ruckus he’d get yelled at by Mom or Pops. He thought for a second.
“Nope, you dope,” he said to Cason, using a phrase that was guaranteed to earn him a kidney punch at bedtime. “I ain’t one of those.”
“What are ya, then?” Cason taunted him.
Out of nowhere it came, or maybe it came from the magic-est curlicue in the wallpaper, or maybe it came from out in the dirt-and-weeds front yard, where his bike was laying on its side, or maybe it was simpler than all that and it was just fate, Turner’s fate. “I’m a bike rider.” he said.
Cason laughed, but now he was angry. “No you ain’t! You can’t even pedal without falling like a crybaby chickensissy! You ain’t no bike rider! You ain’t! You’re a bike faller chickensissy, that’s what you are!”
“Am too,” Turner retorted, stabbing a cuke and popping it into his mouth. “Am too!” he said again.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Mom.
“If you do any more namecalling at the dinner table I’ll tan your hide, Cason,” said Pops.
Cason’s euphoria bubble had popped and he sank down in one of the deep, black troughs that would characterize his life until, many years later, he ended it. Cason scrunched up his eyebrows and stared angrily at his dinner. “You ain’t no bike rider, you ain’t, ’cause you can’t ride a bike.”
“Am too,” Turner hummed. “Am too.”