My family usually spent the Fourth of July in Huntsville; my 13th summer was no different. My aunt and uncle owned a ranch there, and they either gave or rented small homes or trailers to those in my family who hadn’t married into wealth. My grandmother lived in one of those trailers. So did another aunt, and four of my cousins.
Huntsville isn’t exactly a hotbed of high culture. The biggest feature of the region, as many know, is the state penitentiary. The second-biggest draw is the bowling alley where my cousin Martin used to work. In the area where my family lives, they don’t even get their trash picked up; they burn it instead. It was for just that reason that my dad suggested he and I stay around an extra day.
"I think it’d be nice of you to stay around and help your grandmother fix up her lawn tomorrow," he said. His tone of voice implied that if we didn’t pick up garbage, we might go catch a movie, or go sailing, or whatever else struck our fancy.
"I don’t think I’ll do that," I replied.
"Well, your mom and your sister already left, so tough shit."
The next morning, after sleeping uncomfortably on my grandmother’s smelly old couch, my dad woke me up and informed me that he was going to mow the grass, and I was going to pick up all the garbage that the wind had blown around. I sighed and put on some shorts.
"Do you want some cereal, Christopher?" my grandmother asked me.
"I don’t think you have any, Grandma."
She looked confused. "I could’ve sworn I had some around here . . . " She wandered off to the living room—to find some cereal, I assumed.
I stepped out the rear door of the trailer into the oppressive Texas heat. The grass—it was really more like jungle bush—was up to my waist. My dad appeared from around the corner with a push-mower that rivaled the Fisher-Price Bubble Mower in both power and size. It was tough to mask my disgust.
"Just start picking up the trash," he said preemptively. "Don’t worry about the lawn." He gave me a roll of garbage bags and patted me on the shoulder.
I trudged out to the middle of the one-acre yard and observed my task. There was trash everywhere. Old cans of Squirt, paper towels, sun-bleached empty bags of dry dog food, and—ugh, how could she even need these
?—feminine hygiene products. Slowly, I got to work. Fifteen minutes and nine pieces of trash later, I heard my grandmother calling me from the door of her trailer.
"Christopher, honey? Do you want a Squirt?"
"No grandma, I’m fine."
"OK! Watch out for the cows!"
I heard the groan of the mower as my dad labored to get past the first three feet of growth. Seeing me standing around, he let go of the handle, and the mower died.
"Wanna switch?" he asked as he approached.
"Nice try," I said.
"Why don’t we go over there, where the grass is lower? At least we’d be able to get something done."
"Yeah, alright," I agreed.
A few minutes after our new approach, I realized how pointless this all was. What we needed, I decided, was a riding mower. Then we could just drive over the trash. I decided to pitch the idea to my dad.
"Hey dad!" I shouted over the din. He couldn’t hear me; he was shoving with all his might into a two-foot-tall patch and I was about ten feet away.
Suddenly a loud mechanical crunch came from the mower. Something small and fast flew in my direction. Before I even had time to register what was going on, I looked down and saw blood pouring down my left leg. I let out a panicked high-pitched scream, and quickly began balancing on one foot. My dad rushed over and steadied me.
"What the—" he began.
"Get me inside!" I yelled, bouncing towards the trailer. By the time I got to the door, the entire bottom half of my leg was drenched in blood.
"Oh my goodness! Let me get some paper towels!" my grandmother rushed off to the living room. I collapsed into a chair in the kitchen. My dad brought a towel. In the commotion, I still managed to notice that it smelled like an old person. I blotted my leg and then pressed hard to stop the bleeding.
"What the hell was that?" I asked a few minutes later. Things had calmed down a little, and my leg was still attached, so my dad got up and went outside to see if he could find the offending object.
"He frowned as he examined the thing in his hand and sat back down. "It's the lid from a tuna can. It’s pretty rusty."
I looked at the gaping wound on my calf. "Well, let’s go to the hospital; I’m gonna need stitches."
"I don’t think there are any hospitals out here," my grandmother said worriedly.
"Well, we can just go to one of those clinics. There’s one just off the highway."
I hopped into the back of the van.
"Don’t get blood on my seats," my dad said. "This is a new van." It was, in fact, a used van. And we’d had it for a year.
In the 45-minute drive to the clinic, my grandmother apologized about 37 times.
"I’m so sorry, sweetheart," she said. "What can I do to make it better?"
"We’ll get him a happy meal on the way home," my dad suggested.
"I’m 13," I said. "I don’t want a happy meal."
"We’ll get you one with a good toy in it."
Three hours later I left the clinic with 14 stitches and several tetanus shots.
"Can we go home now?" I asked.
"What about your happy meal?" my grandmother wondered.
We drove around looking for a McDonald’s for 20 minutes. Finally my dad gave up and pulled in to a Burger King drive-thru.
"This is pretty much the same thing," he said. "What do you want?"
I looked down at my leg. The bandage felt like it was cutting off my circulation.