Billey might never have learned to use the can opener, if not for the cops.
Sometimes he would be alone for days after they came to see his daddy. He could sleep as late as he liked and forget about school. He and Black Wolf could root around the yard without fear. Only trouble was, they sure got hungry when they were on their own.
Elwood brought home all kinds of things besides the spool. One day, it was strange, gleaming pieces of machinery. Other times, it was a stack of railroad ties or fence posts. Once he showed Billey a crate full of hammers. The only pattern Billey saw was that whatever his daddy brought home was heavy. It involved a great deal of cussing and sweating. And Billey could count on a whupping as soon as the stuff came off the truck.
Nothing was ever there for long. Things sat next to the house for three, four days. Then Billey got up one morning and saw nothing but footprints and an outline in the dust. He figured that was why his daddy kept finding new stuff. Whenever he had something, somebody—maybe those cops—came by in the middle of the night and took it all away. Maybe those cops had clean clothes and shiny cars because they were always stealing his daddy's stuff. Maybe that was why his daddy hated cops even more than he hated Billey.
Billey didn't get to ride in the pickup too much, but every time he did, Elwood found a chance to run down his enemies.
"Smell that stinkin' pork, Billey?" he said, tipping his head back and squeezing his nose when they passed a squad car. "Like to gag on all that bacon fat."
Then his expression sent Billey to the far edge of the seat. "Why ain't you laughin' with me? You gonna be a stinkin' cop when you grow up?"
They came to a place where all the cars seemed to have just parked in the middle of the road.
"Betcha hunnert dollar bill there's a cop at the other end of this mess," Elwood said.
The truck jerked along in the traffic jam a few feet at a time. Elwood swore and stuck his head out the window. After awhile, he cussed and pounded one of the gauges on the dashboard.
"GAH-dam, Billey, them cops are gonna burn up my motor if we don't get movin'." He switched the engine off and hopped out of the truck. Billey saw him craning his neck as he walked and skipped along the dotted line in the center of the road.
As soon as Elwood disappeared, the cars began to move in front of Billey. Behind him, horns sounded, sporadically at first, but then one blare joined another and another until a great jeering wall of sound threatened to topple on Billey.
Just when he thought the noise would bust his head open, Billey felt the truck tilt. He opened his eyes to see his daddy climbing back into the driver's seat.
Elwood stuck his head out the window, looked behind and laid on the horn. Somehow he was able to stick out his tongue without losing the cigarette. "How d'ya like that, ya stupid jackass?" he shouted, pumping a slow rhythm out of the horn. As he gunned the engine, he muttered, "Stupid jackasses. Shouldn't be ‘lowed to drive."
They soon caught up with the creeping line of traffic. Billey looked out the window and saw a truck on its side like an enormous dog that had run until it dropped. A little further, he saw what was left of a big, red car. It looked like a beer can after his daddy had belched and crushed it in his fist. Billey saw part of a man hanging halfway through the windshield. Blood spread out from his head and across the hood. It ran over the fender like long, thin fingers looking for the gravel.
Police cars and fire trucks waited at crazy angles with their lights flashing between the truck and the car.
"What'd I say, Billey?"
"I dunno." Billey couldn't remember anything at that moment.
"Like I tell you, every time there's a mess, you see a bunch of pork asses acting like big shots."
Billey got to ride in the pickup that day because his daddy needed his help. They drove along a lonely road until near dark. They pulled up to a wide, flat-topped building with a big, gravel parking lot.
"I'm gonna see me a man, Billey. If a car comes in here or anyone comes pokin' around, you honk on the horn, understand? You just honk your little ass off."
Billey rested his hand on the horn for a long time and didn't see anything. He felt his head nod as if it were as heavy as his eyelids. He thought of Black Wolf back home, how they could run together all the way to the grassy spot before they collapsed, with their sides heaving.
Suddenly he heard a great commotion at the back of the truck. Even before he swung around to see the two shadowy figures, he pounded the horn. He pressed it hard, as if cramming it down the steering column would boost the volume.
An instant later, the driver's door swung open and Billey flew through the air. The rocks scraped his arms and legs raw in a dozen places when he landed.
"What the hell you think yer doin', you little shitbrain?" Elwood's voice boomed out of the darkness. "You wanna get us all shot?"
Elwood threw the kid back into the truck and sprayed gravel in a tight arc. "Damn stupidest kid I ever seen."
Billey woke the next morning to find a wondrous mountain of copper tubes next to his camper. The wind played a haunting piper's melody for him. The metal tasted clean and tangy on his tongue.
It wasn't yet noon when his daddy spotted the cops coming around the bend.
"Get in the room right quick, Billey," he yelled. The house had three rooms, but Billey knew he meant the bedroom, the only one with a curtain. "Keep your mouth shut and don't come out ‘til I tell you."
Billey wanted to find out more about these awful cops, but the drill always prevented that. He and Black Wolf had to flatten themselves against the wall beneath the window and keep still as death while his daddy talked to the intruders. When they were that close, Black Wolf couldn't help but lick Billey's face with his big, sloppy tongue, but Billey knew it would cause a ruckus if he tried to make the dog stop.
When the cops finally left, they would either take his daddy with them, or they would leave him behind to give Billey a whupping. He always hoped they would take his daddy, but—even if they were cops—he couldn't blame them for not wanting to be with him.
He strained his ears, but couldn't make out much of what was said.
"Somebody musta dumped it here," he heard his daddy say. "Never saw a thing."
Billey heard footsteps clomping back and forth on the porch, saw the shadows cast on the curtain over his head. He finally heard the police car start up and drive away. Then everything remained still for a very long time. The cops must have taken his daddy. But still Billey waited, silent as the house itself, until the room grew dark.
At his bladder's final warning, Billey eased himself up from the floor and poked his nose over the window sill. He couldn't see anything outside, so he tip-toed through the door and watered the trunk of the catalpa. Black Wolf sprang over to see what was going on. After being still so long, he bounced up and down with excitement and hunger like a shaggy black ball.
Billey had watched his daddy use the can opener enough to understand it in principle, but the fine points of its use would take some practice.
The first time hunger drove him to experiment, he could only make the can opener take one tiny bite of the metal at a time. After perforating the entire rim, he used the wooden-handled knife to pry the top of the can open just enough to spoon the beans out. His daddy had taught him what words to say each time he nicked his hands in the process.
Billey and Black Wolf each ate a can of beans and licked the spoon. They snuggled together in the camper and dreamt of running to the grassy spot.
The sun was high the next day as Billey sat on the copper mountain and listened to the music the wind made. Before he could look to see what made Black Wolf bark, the boot sent Billey sprawling.
"Thought I told you to git in the room 'til I told you to git out." Elwood's shadow fell across his son. "Gonna have to teach you a few things now."
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