The Trouble With Scooter
Will’s once steady hands trembled from Parkinson’s disease when he raised the plastic spoon carrying the mango ice cream towards his mouth. “Scooter was always asking what happened between you,” he said. “I’ve also wondered all these years, and we don’t have too many years left. What happened?”
“I think Scooter knew very well what happened,” I replied.
Will’s Parkinson’s has slowed the speech and movements of one of the boys from Aqua Clara considerably. When we go to the bank, I am inside transacting business before Will can get inside. Likewise I am waiting for him at the car several minutes before he returns from inside the bank. Slow motion and low soft speech have become realities we both accept, like the fact he has always been four inches taller than me.
“I’m surprised Scooter gave what happened between us any thought,” I added.
“Every time he came to see me, every single time, he said you wouldn’t see him.”
“I never said I wouldn’t see him,” although I could understand how Scooter might feel I had.
Will and I ate our ice cream while sitting on wooden benches by a picnic table outside the ice cream shop on a sunny afternoon. Cars clogged Gulf Boulevard between the ice cream shop and the Gulf. I had come to talk business with Will, but when we get together business has a way of becoming forgotten. Here we were not discussing business but eating ice cream and about to talk about the trouble with Scooter. We could also talk of vanquished youth when we made short sea voyages in prams that sank or the time we each stole and ate a gallon each of ice cream, mine strawberry, making me sick. That was when I was nine, sixty-two years ago, and I still can’t eat strawberry ice cream.
“I haven’t told you about Scooter, because I like to remember people at their best and not their worst,” I told Will. “I don’t like to speak bad of any one. I’d like you to remember Scooter playing football the way he did, not in some ugly way. So perhaps it’s better if I don’t tell you what happened.”
Across the busy street were the beach and the Gulf of Mexico. Kids were swimming offshore and sunning on the sand. A parasail towed by a boat hoisted a brave soul into the clear sky above moderately choppy waves. Will and I had probable first come to the Gulf of Mexico with his mother as six year olds to swim sixty-five years before this conversation and a few years before Scooter showed up in Aqua Clara.
“I’d like to know what happened,” Will said.
“I don’t want to tell you.”
All the former boys I grew up with are getting older, except for Scooter who just joined those former boys who are dead and not getting older any more. We are all heading toward oblivion, some fasters than others. Take me. I woke this morning with a foggy brain and almost got dressed before stepping into my shower. In order to not consider our afflictions sad, we have opted to laugh about them.
“By the way, what day is this?” Will asked.
I looked at his balding head that once possessed a mass of dark hair, and replied: “Thursday.” His bald dome glistened in the sun like a wet melon. I wondered what he thought of my gray tangle of curly hair once blond.
“The date today?” Will asked.
It was July 16, almost forty-two years since my split with Scooter.
“The year?” Will asked. Once the brightest lad in the school systems of Aqua Clara, he can no longer recall dates, but he remembers what the precession of equinox is.
“It’s 2017, Will.”
“Well, then,” he said with a smile still boyish, “don’t you think it’s time you told me what happened with Scooter while you still can.”
Did he cleverly work his way up to that question? Or was it just accidental how he closed his series of questions? With Will it is at times hard to tell accidents and cleverness apart, as his old cleverness is there, just hidden.
Like I say, I try to remember people at their best.
When my friend Carl died, or rather when I found out months later that he had died on the Internet because we too had become estranged, I remembered him and wrote about the day he had saved a boy’s life, maybe other lives, by corralling a runaway car with a baby in it. The car carrying the infant was about to roll into traffic. But I omitted how Carl had likely slept with a woman I had once loved, and what he said that had certainly given me pause over my relationship with her, although that wasn’t the reason Carl and I became estranged. We split apart over time because of Carl’s tendency to wreck cars and marriages while drinking, and because together we behaved much worse than separately.
As for the falling out with Scooter it was more abrupt than the gradual erosion of my friendship with Carl. Indeed my friendship with Carl never ended, but Carl did.
In 1975 I came home to Aqua Clara after a nine-year absence that included a tour in Vietnam that ended seven years earlier. I came home not the confident youth who had left, but someone altered and frayed. A year of war and more years of American rejection and decadence on three continents had changed me.
I enrolled at the university and was scheduled to begin classes in the fall and stayed briefly at home with my parents until the term began after Labor Day, and then moved into an apartment in Dallas.
While still at home, my mother called me to the phone, saying you won’t believe who is on the line. It was a boy who had been with me in three years of my elementary school and in cub and boy scouts.
“Scooter?” I said.
He had left Aqua Clara some years earlier, when his father’s job caused his family to relocate, and had not been in my graduating high school class. I had last seen Scooter in junior high.
I asked: “What are you doing back in Aqua Clara, Scooter?”
He had returned to make arrangement over the house his aunt had owned. She had died, leaving the house to him, since his parents had died earlier. Scooter was adopted when his parents were in their late forties. His aunt was childless.
“I heard from Will you went to Vietnam,” Scooter said. “Like Nick,” another friend.
“Yes,” I said. I expected Scooter to ask more about the war, but thankfully he didn’t. “I’m going to college in the fall.”
He wanted to know what I intended to study.
“I’m going to be a parole and probation officer. What are you doing with yourself?”
His parents had left him money. Now his aunt had left him money. He didn’t have to do too much, but he expected to go into business. He had, he said, a really cool idea, although I didn’t ask what.
“What don’t we get together for a drink?” Scooter suggested.
Generally I avoided old friends and haunts when I came home. There weren’t a lot of haunts to go to and I might run into someone I knew. There was the woman to be avoided and Carl who had likely slept with her, or at least made me believe she had offered to sleep with him (I had never known Carl to turn down an offer). If I went for a few beers with Scooter, reentering places where men shot pool (and if they had too much to drink hit each other), I worried might run into her or Carl, but I reluctantly said: “All right. Where should I meet you?”
He asked me to pick him up at his aunt’s house. He hadn’t rented a car but had taken the bus and a taxi.
“Seven o’clock,” he suggested. “Let’s go drink a few beers.”
He had always been big. He was the largest kid in the elementary school, and I don’t mean he was fat. The way he dressed in 1975 made him look bigger. He had probably put on forty pounds since I last saw him and was much broader overall. While I had taken to chinos, loafers, and cotton shirts, he wore jeans, a button down shirt, and a hat that might have been a real Stetson, boots, and a wide black belt with a large silver buckle. He looked every bit the cowboy, while I looked ever bit not.
“Well, look at you, dude,” he said, and we shook hands. The hand, surprisingly damp, had a crushing grip. “Getting any?” he said, a manly ritual requiring no answer.
We got into my newly purchased car and headed for downtown Aqua Clara, with its three honky-tonk bars.
“So are you married, Scooter?”
He had left his wife behind in Nebraska on this trip. He said didn’t like being married that much, it sort of limited his options, but his wife was cute. They had no children. “Doesn’t mean that I’m dead or anything if we find some ladies,” he added.
I remarked that, even though I remained single, the odds of finding any ladies on a Tuesday night in the bars of our fine city were somewhere between small and none, and the small likely included women we probably wouldn’t think of as ladies.
“How long have you been back from Europe?” he asked.
“Just a few weeks. Just enough time to pick my classes, buy a car, and find an apartment.”
Of all the boys in the group who played football on the expansive green carpet of Will’s backyard, the largest and toughest player was Scooter Willis, whose first name of Harold was never used. Scooter always wanted to play defensive back or be the running back, never the quarterback or receiver, because he liked to run into people. When sides were chosen, it was always best to be on Scooter’s team, if you cared to win or not be injured. Scooter wasn’t skilled at throwing, catching, or kicking a football; he was just a bull, a little over two hundred pounds in those days, large for a kid in junior high school, and supernaturally strong. He was known for bone crushing tackles and putting opposing players out onto their backs. Unlike modern times, no one wore uniforms or a helmet. A referee wasn’t needed; we were on our honor. Nonetheless a boy solidly tackled by Scooter would want to rest on the ground awhile watching the clouds pass peacefully overhead while his brain tried to work again before standing back up.
Scooter couldn’t be stopped when carrying the ball, whether it was tucked under his arm or held in one of his big hands. There were days when Scooter was his own team, opposing all the other boys who showed up to play. Three or four boys his age couldn’t topple Scooter; no one could tackle him effectively. When hit by opposing players, he would just continue plodding toward the goal line while dragging the three or four boys who clung hopelessly to his torso and churning legs. Sometimes the boys hopped onto Scooter’s back and hung to his neck to no avail. The only hope of preventing a Scooter touchdown was prying the ball loose. If you got a lose ball, you could probably outrun Scooter for a touchdown, because he was comparatively slow, although quick in an initial sprint.
Despite such brute strength, Scooter off the football field had been a considerate boy and not a bully. Although no one dared bully Scooter, when witnessing bullying he could have stopped, he took little interest in such cruel events and stood back to observe it as an amusing curiosity. Will and I weren’t bullies either; we were the bullied.
“This is the good Scooter, the one I prefer to remember,” I told Will, Scooter triumphant, the invincible football player, rather than the one who showed up in 1975 and beyond. “You sure you want me to go on? You won’t think of Scooter the same after I tell you this,” for Will and I have beliefs in synch on how not to treat people.
“Yes, go on. I want to know.”
Scooter and I stopped at two bars and were on our way to the third. Like I predicted, the bars, largely empty, were completely devoid of women. We had shot several games of very bad pool in the first two against opponents who invariably beat us. We played for beers and lost, and in the process we had consumed four beers each and treated our opponents to just as many. I drank Schlitz. Scooter drank Lone Star. I do not excuse what he did because he was drinking.
I was a little tired of Scooter and ready to go home and start a good book, but Scooter wanted to try out The Hitching Post. Maybe, he said, some ladies would be there.
“Fat chance,” I said, but we never got there to find out if there were ladies present or not.
It was perhaps 9:30 p.m., and the lights of the city shone on a clear night when you could see stars if you got outside of town. The air was fresh with a whiff of the sea, my windows were down, in part to let out the cigarette smoke, for Scooter smoked one butt right after another, lighting one from the other, and the two bars where we had shot pool were filled with cigarette smoke.
I had just asked Scooter how he managed to avoid Vietnam, since he had not gone to college, and he had said he had been rejected for medical reasons: 4-F. What, I wondered, could possibly have rendered Scooter 4-F, for Scooter had been and looked as healthy as the proverbial horse. It was some time before I realized what had probably kept Scooter out of the war.
Scooter’s right arm with the burning cigarette dangled out the passenger’s window. We passed an older white sedan with its windows down. Scooter stuck his head and much of his torso out my car window and did something startling. He hollered as loudly as he could, “Niggers!” and flung the cigarette at the car. “Niggers!” he roared again.
“What are you doing?” I screamed.
He likely hoped to toss the burning cigarette butt onto the hood of the car beside us where it would create a shower of sparks, but the cigarette had looped back and gone into the driver’s side of the sedan. I craned my neck around Scooter’s considerable bulk and looked into the car nearly beside us, driven by an African American adult male and containing his family, wife next to him in front, three young children in the back seats. The driver and his wife were desperately trying to get Scooter’s burning cigarette out of the driver’s shirt.
“Jesus, God, Scooter!” I screamed and pulled sharply to the curb.
“Hey,” Scooter said. “Just having some fun.”
“Get out of my car!” I yelled. “That’s not my idea of fun.”
“What?” Scooter asked, just as the family’s sedan veered off the road and into a concrete lamppost with a loud crash.
“Look what you’ve caused, you asshole!” I screamed at Scooter.
Once in Montgomery, Alabama, while in the service, I played baseball for my unit’s team. I was an outfielder, bad at catching, but I could sure hit. I hit two home runs that day.
The game went into extra inning. The male soldiers lived on Gunter Air Force Base, where the game was played. The women soldiers had barracks on Maxwell Air Force Base across town. By the time the game was over, three women had missed the last bus between the two air force bases so I offered them a ride.
In the middle of Montgomery, we attracted a white Imperial with five white boys inside. The three women in my car were black; I wasn’t. The white boys hurled insults at me and at the three women serving their country. I ducked into the police station, which shed me of the Imperial, but when I asked for help from a cop, he told me I better move on.
During the insults, one of the young women sitting beside me had the saddest and most pained look on her face I had ever seen. It was a look of absolute and pure anguish. Tears didn’t run down her face; that would be my face. I was ashamed and furious and afraid and impotent. Here I was just doing a good deed and had inadvertently exposed these young women to pain. As a white person, I could not feel the same pain as the woman beside me, but I felt its incredible depth.
This is part of the reason I said again: “Get out of my car, Scooter.”
Scooter looked back at me with this dumfounded, hurt stare. Apparently he couldn’t fathom that what he had done that had upset me.
“I will not tolerate that!” I said.
Like Scooter I had grown up in our prejudiced little town. Aqua Clara in its days had a Klan, a small group, mostly lower class. Maybe it has the Klan now. Not a lot of them, then or now though. Most white people I grew up with were tacit and lazy racists who were a little embarrassed by the Klan and their goat mascot. The town has much progressed although its poorer citizens are still uniformly citizens of color and its more well to do white.
But I was no longer part of the past. I had served with black soldiers in a war and afterwards. I had black soldiers for friends and hung out with them or them with me socially. I had supervised black privates and specialists and took orders form black majors and colonels. I had respected every black soldier I met to a man (more than I can say for the white soldiers) and had educated myself out of prejudice and ignorance.
After the war I found there were few things my tolerant nature could not abide, but in that tiny few were racial prejudice and hurting people because of their color.
“You want me to get out of your car?” Scooter asked.
I looked down the road where the sedan had stopped. The driver stood looking at his dented car and looking back at my car, perhaps apprehensively. His wife and children remained in the car.
“Yes, get out of my car, Scooter. If the cops come looking for this car, I am going to tell them what you did.”
“Well, how am I going to get home?”
“I don’t care how you get home, Scooter.”
“You’d leave me here?”
“Walk, call a cab, stick your thumb up, or ask those people you just insulted and terrorized to give you a ride.”
“You want me to get out?”
“Now, Scooter,” I said and waited.
He was much bigger than me, but I was angrier. I am not a fighting person, not a bar shit kicker, but when riled I have found I can surprise myself. I don’t know if we would have fought or not if he hadn’t opened the door and stepped onto the curb, but I was sure relieved when he did. The image of Scooter with his finger raised was the last I ever expected to see of him. There were also some very choice words that described the types of people I loved and what I did with my mother.
“I’m very sorry,” I said out the window to the sedan driver, a neatly dressed man in his forties.
“Are you now?” the man softly said.
“I had nothing to do with it, and if I knew what Scooter was going to do, I would have stopped him.”
Not knowing my sincerity, the sedan driver said nothing, but just nodded. During our short conversation he looked at the ground or away and never face-to-face.
“His name is Scooter Willis. Make him pay for it. He’s got plenty of money. I’ll stop and call the cops,” for it was the day of the payphone, not the cellphone.
“No, mister,” the sedan driver said quietly. “Don’t call the cops. I’ve got insurance and don’t need trouble. I’ll report it to the cops and my insurance company in due time.”
“Are you sure about the cops? Is your family OK? Do you need a wrecker?”
“We’re OK. Please just go on. Never mind about calling the police.”
“I’m truly sorry,” I said.
“Thank you for stopping. Most folks would just have driven off.”
“I’m just terribly sorry,” I said again.
When my mother asked me if I had a good time with Scooter, I told her I had not. I never told her what went wrong. I never told anyone until sitting outside the ice cream parlor watching Will eating scoops of mango ice cream dangling on a shaky plastic white spoon.
“So was that the last you saw of Scooter?” Will asked.
“No. I saw him once again just before he died.”
Scooter came to visit Nick and his wife some years later in the town where I made my new home. Nick was another Aqua Clara boy who had moved to the big city. We resumed a friendship nearly as old as the one between Will and I. Nick taught creative writing and American literature at the university I had attended and like me had gone to Vietnam, although he went via the U.S. Marine Corps. We were known to drink beer and go kayaking.
“Scooter’s here for a few days and you ought to see him,” Nick said over the phone.
“I really don’t want to see Scooter.”
“You should see him. He asked about you.”
“What did he say?”
“I said that you lived near by, and he said he’d like to see you. He has something to say to you.”
“I don’t know. Can’t he just call me up and say it?”
“Just drop by. I know he’d like to see you. It’s probably his last chance. He’s fallen on some really hard times. Maybe he needs to clear something off his chest before he dies.”
“How hard?” I asked.
Scooter had become very religious and joined the local fundamentalist church, taking his wife along. Once in church, God spoke to him and said he should marry another women in the congregation, but when Scooter approached the woman, who did not know him, and told her that God’s will was that she should marry him, she was frightened. His wife wasn’t frightened, but furious.
He had opened a business, a tourist attraction, Nick said, in a small Nebraska town not on the Interstates. “Get this, the museum specialized in acquainting the visitor with the many types of small things in this world, like bacteria, bugs, seeds, and fungus.” The darkened Museum of Tiny Things had illuminated aisles of microscopes and large projections of minutia on its walls. Only those who were curious or in need of a hearty laugh at the proprietor’s expensive vision came to the museum.
Then the afternoon came when Scooter’s wife received a call from a friend who reported Scooter was downtown handing out money on one of the busier street corners. He had withdrawn thousands from the bank and was giving it away to whoever would take it. God had spoken again to Scooter, and God wasn’t done.
Scooter also felt instructed by God to kill all the Arabs he could find. Fortunately there weren’t any Arabs in the tiny town where Scooter lived.
“So he lost his mind?” I asked.
“Manic depression and off his medication,” Nick said. He had kept in close touch with Scooter over the years.
“Have they treated him?”
“They locked him up and tried, but they screwed up his lithium dosage. He’s brain damaged. If all that is not enough, his wife has divorced him, taking what money she could salvage.”
“I don’t think I want to see him, Nick.”
“Come on. The man is going to die soon so show him a little mercy.”
Scooter sat in a yard chair on Nick’s porch because he still chain-smoked and Nick’s wife didn’t want the smell of smoke on her drapes or in her carpets. Scooter had lost perhaps one hundred pounds. His eyes were gray and looked washed out. He wore a one-piece garment, a sort of white robe, something I have seen on New Age websites and in Buddhist catalogs. He drank frequently and in large gulps from a 1.75-liter Diet Pepsi bottle; two empty Pepsi bottles sat on the ground, the one half full was wedged between his legs. This was what Scooter did repeatedly; drink, talk, smoke, drink, talk, smoke, etc. He trembled and shook with a palsy much worse than Will’s ever would become – damage from the lithium. It wasn’t that hot or in the heat of the day, but he was perspiring heavily.
He spoke to me in a weak voice when he intoned, “Howdy,” like they may have said it in the Grand Ole Opry - “how dee,” with the “dee” much higher in pitch and a long pause between the two syllables.
I sat beside Scooter on another yard chair on the front porch while he spoke largely nonsense in a singsong voice with a great number of “praise the Lord” thrown in for punctuations. I made out that he had a stroke and was worried about another one, although not worried enough to stop smoking or to quit drinking sodas with caffeine.
“The next one will kill me,” Scooter correctly predicted.
“Nick said there was something you wanted to tell me, Scooter.”
“Yes. Trust in Jesus.”
“Yes. Trust in Christ.”
Not knowing what else to say, I talked to Scooter about my life and about the days and boys of Aqua Clara (and some of the girls). I spoke of his invincible days as our football champion and talked about old friends like Will. He listened and once in a while said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” When at length I said I had to go, he stood, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “God bless you.”
“God bless you too, Scooter,” I said.
A surprise: “What happened between us?” Scooter asked baffled, suddenly agitated, and with tears in his eyes.
I began to say that Scooter damn well knew what happened between us, but I checked myself. I didn’t need to hurt the feelings of a man so down on his luck and about to die. But I couldn’t say anything that gave mercy to Scooter either. I just didn’t speak about it. “You take care, Scooter,” is all I said, and left, and that was the last I saw of Scooter.
“So that’s it,” Will said, while finishing the last of his mango ice cream and considering if he could have a second.
“Go ahead and have a second,” I suggested.
“In a minute.”
“I think it was mental illness that kept Scooter 4-F,” I suggested. It seemed likely, because there was nothing wrong with Scooter’s body. “I’m sorry I told you what happened. I’d rather have you remember Scooter for his football than the rest of it. Now when you think of him, you’ll think of these other things.”
“Do you think he was crazy when he insulted those folks back in Aqua Clara and caused that accident?” Will asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, it being hard to tell racism from insanity. “You going to have more mango ice cream?”
“I think so,” Will said. “You want some more rocky road?”