Scuppernongs and muscadines / Bubble gum three for a dime / Orange Crush over ice / Sawmill gravy over rice / That’s the way / My world / Used to be.
When Alan Reuss was a kid, a scuppernong vine stood at the edge of the front yard, just a few feet from the highway. On the side of his grandparents’ house, in the middle of the mill village, sat a muscadine vine. He loved to take a break from cutting the grass, or playing catch, and pick the wild grapes. They were similar. Scuppernongs were golden. Muscadines varied from reddish-purple to greenish-gold. The skins were tougher than grapes, and there were seeds to spit out. For no particular reason that he could describe, Alan always liked the muscadines a little better. Like the muscadines, Alan grew up with a thicker skin than most kids. He was a bit of a hick, always listening to country music because that was what his father liked. Frank Reuss demanded a lot. Alan had a hard time pleasing him but never stopped trying. In some ways, he grew up too fast. At fourteen, he knew how to get his daddy home when he’d had too much to drink at a cattle sale, or a horse show, or a ballgame. Frank always took Alan with him, not because theirs was a rich companionship but because Alan was his backup. Sometimes Alan felt as much hostage as son. In other ways, though, he grew up too slow. He was socially awkward because he grew up isolated. When other kids inquired about his favorite rock band, or why his blue jeans were too short, or why he still wore his hair short, Alan didn’t know what to say. He only knew the world of his father, the farm, and the family. He loved to read, whether from comic books, sports magazines, or the local library. People said he was the smartest kid in town, and under their breaths added that he was a little strange, “a mite peculiar.” A little strange to them was just normal to Alan.
Alan worked one day a week at a curb market. The rest of his afternoons were on the farm, feeding the cattle and horses, mowing the pastures, hauling the hay. That’s the way it was for eight months of the year. From August on, beginning in the seventh grade, Alan played football. His father had played football. It’s what Reusses did. It’s what made their men men. Alan knew well the feeling of dread, sweating on the practice field, when he’d see his old man arrive in his red Ford pickup, half pint of whiskey under the seat and bottle of Sprite between his legs “to chase it with.” Daddy would just sit in that pickup, atop the hill above the practice field, and watch practice. When Daddy was there, Alan knew better than to dawdle. He got yelled at for his athletic failings twice as much from his father as his coaches. Frank took a good bit of the fun out of it. Fun wasn’t the purpose of playing football. Winning was.
He always kept a Sprite / To chase his Rebel Yell / When he slept it off / It was time to give me hell / People say that deep down / He was always proud of me / But secondhand was not a plan / To set my demons free.
Being Frank Reuss’s son wasn’t without its advantages. Alan had lots of friends attracted by his father’s gregarious nature. All his football teammates loved the parties, the barbecues, at the Reuss farm on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and at Christmas time. Daddy set the boy up with cheerleaders, but, man, those dates were embarrassing. Alan didn’t know what to do, what to say, how to act. He really had two sets of friends: the jocks with whom he sweated in the hot Carolina sun for hours each afternoon, and the kids who, like Alan, were academically gifted. Alan wrote sports for the school paper, and, as a senior, was elected president of the National Honor Society. He fell in love with the daughter of a professor at the local college. Chelsea Fowler wouldn’t have gone to a football game if it had been played in her front yard. She was into drama and played the female lead in most every school play. She fancied herself a bohemian who listened to Simon & Garfunkel, read Russian novels, and smoked cigarettes. They went out several times, but soon she gravitated toward Freddy Johnson, a kid who’d quit the football team, smoked cigarettes, too, and God knows what else he was into. Alan thought he was sorry, regardless of whether he could star opposite Chelsea in “Li’l Abner” or not. Alan watched that play bitterly from the wings. He was the stage manager.
By the time his senior year rolled around, Alan and his father rarely talked because most of the time they did, they argued. He grew resentful. Of course, he did his duty, and the football team turned in a championship season. Playing in the offensive line gave Alan confidence, but he never really matured in the fashion of his teammates. He got so emotional and motivated sometimes that he couldn’t do anything right, but he wouldn’t give up, and as often as Coach yanked him out of games, he’d stick him right back in. The word on Alan was that he was better coming off the bench. Languishing on the sidelines seemed to settle him down.
When he got mad, he’d often blame his father, and when he did, his teammates always sided with the old man.
“Just shut the fuck up,” the quarterback, Jack Simms, told him. “Your daddy’s a great guy, man. You ought to learn how to appreciate him.”
“Oh, yeah,” Alan said. “Well, you ought to live with the son of a bitch.”
TO BE CONTINUED