Our closest neighbour was Elrod. He lived up the road about a half-mile. His house was on the hill, right in the bend where you could turn off to head towards the feed store. It always smelled strange up there. There was an old silo there on the hill past Elrod’s house with a faded, Purina Mills red and white checked print on the side of it. There was a little feed and tackle store there. We normally went to Chastain’s feed store in town, but occasionally we’d have to run up past Elrod’s to get a little grain in a pinch. My old man didn’t like Elrod. My old man didn’t like anybody who lived nearby. He shot our old twelve-gauge shotgun at a plane that was passing over the farm once. I don’t know why he’d think it was his right to shoot at a plane. I suppose he just figured he was on his land and he could do anything he damn well pleased.
Elrod kept a few head of cattle. He had twenty or so acres that were situated across the dirt road from one of our fields. He had a bull that used to rub up on the fence trying to draw attention from our heifers across the road. My old man would get in the truck and run down the road to give Elrod an ear full of it. Elrod always kept his cool. It pissed Daddy right off. Since my old man’s threats wouldn’t move Elrod’s bull, he’d put Nixxon and I up to it. He bought the two of us air pistols to shoot at the bull whenever we wanted. Nixxon’s looked like an old Luger and mine was modeled after a nine millimetre. We used to sit by the fence and take dead aim at the bull’s nuts from across the road. The pistols would shoot pellets or BB’s, but we only kept BB’s. The little metal balls would thump against the bull’s scro-tum and just stick to the skin for a second or two before he shook them off with his back leg. My brother and I would sit there giggling at the sight for an hour or longer, until the bull decided he’d had enough.
Elrod was from up north, Connecticut. This was Georgia. Daddy couldn’t stand it that a Yankee lived up the road from him in Georgia. He wanted us to do everything we could to make life hell for the Elrods. Nixxon and I used to ride our motorcycles up and down the road, kicking up gravel and weaving in and out of each other. I had a little Yamaha 125 and Nixxon was still on a Honda 50. I had never actually spoke to Elrod until one day when we were tearing ass up the road and he waved us over to his yard. Nixxon and I both thought that he was going to take this opportunity to give us an ear full. I was already visualizing telling my daddy about it and seeing him go beet red while biting his tongue. He always bit his tongue when he was mad. He curled it back and bared down on it, showing his teeth from just beneath his mustache. This was usually accented with shaking which made the hairs on his head wiggle a bit. Sort of like the hair on a bear’s back if he were running down a hill after you.
‘Hey Guys, how are you today?’ Elrod asked politely.
‘Alright sir,’ I said.
‘Well listen here fellas, I gotta couple of little nephews heading down from Buffalo in a few weeks and I’m working on a little surprise for them. I was wondering if I could get an opinion on it from you boys?’
He then went into telling us about how he didn’t normally make gifts for his nephews, but he was tired of going out and spending heaps of money on gifts that lacked character. He followed this by hanging his head and moaning about how they never really cared much for the things that he gave them anyway. He said that they were Nintendo junkies that just sat in front of the TV all day. I guess you couldn’t blame them. Nixxon and I played plenty of Nintendo, but if we lived in a place like Buffalo, New York, I suppose we’d play more. The thought of having to suffer through those harsh winters and concrete seemed a completely legitimate reason to never leave the house.
After very little persuasion he turned and led us to his garage. He clicked on the light as we passed through the doorway. It looked strangely similar to all other garages I’d seen. The same old junk, the same mildewy smell, no signs that a Yankee garage was any different than a southern one. Elrod had an old Dodge Charger taking up most of his space. There were boxes of books, old trophies, and picture frames stacked on the hood. You could make out a clearing back behind the Dodge just as a staircase led up into the house. Above the clearing was a bright fluorescent light. As we moved our way around the car I noticed something covered up by a faded sheet with flower patterns.
Elrod turned to us just before reaching the object, swinging around at us so fast Nixxon jumped back.
‘Oh hey buddy, its alright,’ Elrod said softly.
‘This is just what I was bringing you in here to have a look at. I’ve been working on it for over a month now,’ his eyes lit up as a smile split his face.
He removed the sheet with one quick, dusty pull to expose something that looked to me like a praying mantis made of steel. It was standing on a round base, similar to that of a merry-go-round. Atop the base was a T-shaped bar that went up from the ground about five feet and then across from the center towards each end about six or seven feet, giving the contraption a span of about twelve to fourteen feet. At the end of each of the extending arms was a seat and a set of pedals. The seat looked a bit like an old bicycle saddle. Attached to the pedals and crankshaft was a gear that held a long chain which ran back to the middle of the contraption.
‘What is it sir?’ I asked.
Elrod held up both hands with his fingers slightly bent inward, almost as if he was impersonating a bear. ‘It’s a whirligig!’
‘Now the way it works boys, is one of you gets on that side and the other gets on the other side and when you peddle it spins around. It’s on a fixed gear, so the faster you peddle the faster you spin around. The only thing I’ll warn you on is it doesn’t have any brakes. You have to just keep spinning around until you slow down.’
Elrod put out the palm of his hands as an invitation for us to hop on up and give it a try. Nixxon looked over at me to see if I thought it would be alright. We both looked toward the machine and made a move. The seats were very sturdy. The bar sank a bit with the weight of the two of us, but it seemed to hold us up just fine. It had a cushy bounce like a seesaw weighted evenly on each side. I put my feet up on the pedals. There were small handles to the side of the seat. I grabbed on to them and slowly began pushing the pedals. It was a little stiff at first, but once we started to rotate it became the momentum picked right up. It was smooth and fast. Nixxon’s face began to light up. Before we knew it we had the thing spinning around so fast our hair was blowing over to one side of our faces and we were both leaning into the spin. I let off the pedals as the laughter and excitement turned to nausea and vertigo. By the time we came to a stop I felt like I was going to throw up so I tried to run outside. I took two steps towards the charger and fell straight over into it and onto the garage floor. Nixxon was laughing so hard he nearly fell down as well.
It all came to an end with that long, shrill whistle that made my hair stand up every time I heard it. Daddy would always whistle at Nixxon and I the same way he whistled at the cattle. He’d put each of his pinky fingers in the side of his mouth, curl his tongue, pull back his lips and let it rip. I’m not sure which one of us would get there first, but you could bet we’d all come running. He had the truck pulled over beside our motorcycles. As soon as he saw us running out of Elrod’s garage he went ballistic. I could see from the distance that he’d already curled his tongue, began to bite down, and had his hair doing the bear shake.
‘Well, hey there Sonny how are you today?’ Elrod came out of the garage behind us with a cool smile and a sense of accomplishment in his voice.
‘What in the hell are my boys doin’ in nere with you Elrod?’ Daddy was furious.
‘Well hey Sonny look …’
‘Don’t you damn, hey sonny look, me Elrod,’ Daddy said sarcastically. ‘I don’t want my boys up in no damned Yankee garage, foolin’ around with no damned Yankee shit! Ye got me?!’
‘Now look, Sonny …’
‘Don’t sass back at me boy! Ye Got Me?!’ he tailed the second asking of the same question an octave higher.
Elrod put his hands up and then threw them down like he’d just forfeited the game and said, ‘Have it your way Sonny. I was just trying to be nice.’
He walked back into his garage as Nixxon and I prepared ourselves for what was coming.
‘Getch your little asses back to the house! NOW! Boy I’m gone wear your asses out when I getch you home!’
Daddy slammed the truck door and spun a wheel around throwing gravel on Nixxon and I. We shot each other a grin that erupted into laughter as we kicked our bikes and blew back down the road towards home.
A few days later, all of the dust from the whirligig had settled. We were back on the farm as normal. Work in the morning, dinner at noon, knock off at about five, and mess around until supper. One afternoon I came straight back in the house and had a cold shower. It had been particularly hot. I was fresh out of the shower with that refreshing cold-water chill on my skin and a ceiling fan blowing from above. While watching some He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, I was suddenly reinvigorated and an urge came over me. I remembered the smooth feel of the whirligig spinning around so fast you couldn’t see. I could remember the way the air picked up and your hair blew sideways. I re-lived the scream in your ears as you whizzed round and round, not being able to stop even if you wanted to. I’d get that crazy hair about the trampoline here and again, but not like this. I had to go back and ride the whirligig!
Just as He-Man finished up, I scooted into me and Nixxon’s room and pulled on my jeans. I didn’t know where Nixxon was and I didn’t have time to go find him. I looked around to make sure Daddy wouldn’t see me as I ran out of the front gate and ran up the road to Elrod’s. I didn’t bother with my bike because the old man would have heard it crank up.
It took about five minutes or so to make it up to Elrod’s place. His garage door was closed so I ran up the side of the hill to his front door. I passed through the carport and knocked on the door. Mrs. Elrod answered it.
‘Hello there young man, can I help you?’ She was very polite.
‘Yessim‘ is Mr. Elrod around?’
‘No he’s went up to the quick way, do you want me to tell him you stopped by?’
‘No ma’am.’ She drew a puzzled look as I turned and ran back down the hill, heading home before my daddy found out.
Just as I reached the dirt road I stopped for a second and looked back. There was a tiny space between Elrod’s garage door and the concrete pad that it closed onto. I decided I would be able to get my hand underneath it so I would just go and see if it was unlocked. I ran back up to the door mind-fully looking out for Daddy or Elrod. I slid my fingers under the door and it lifted right up. The blood rushed through my neck and lifted my cheeks as the excitement bubbled. I peeked in, switched on the light and made way to the clearing in the back. The florescent light finished its flickering and jolted light down on the whirligig just as I reached it. I ripped the sheet off and proceeded to climb up onto the saddle.
Just as I hopped up on the contraption I heard a car pull into the carport above. ‘Must be Elrod,’ I said to myself as I started to peddle. The whirligig seemed to sag a little more without Nixxon on the other side, but it still picked up just fine. It was as satisfying as the first time. The wind started to fill my ears and I could feel my scalp as the hair blew over to one side of my head. I almost let out a yell as I saw the stair light kick on and heard the door creak open. Elrod took two steps down and then leaned over to see me whirling around at breakneck speed. He grinned and finished his descent. By the time he’d made it to the bottom of the stairs he’d broken out into full laughter. I grinned so hard I thought my cheeks would bust.
After a few more rotations I saw Elrod’s face turn from smile to vapid hole in an instant. From the corner of my eye as I whirl around I could see Daddy’s silhouette at the garage’s opening. I took my feet off the pedals and allowed it to start winding down. Elrod’s expression hadn’t moved, he looked like stone. I couldn’t make what my Daddy was up to other than standing completely still. I was nearly at the point of stopping before I came around and got a clear shot of Daddy’s face.
To my surprise, his brow had lifted and his mouth gaped open. He looked like a baby staring at a rocking horse. I was just waiting for it all to end. I imagined his lifted brow shooting down in anger and he and Elrod going at it. I had seen him fly off the handle so many times before I had grown used to the quiet before the storm. He looked over at Elrod and Elrod looked at me. By the time I made it back to Daddy’s face he’d busted out a full smile. I looked back over at Elrod and saw nothing but teeth and gums.
I’m not sure what it was that came over Daddy when he saw the whirligig. He had never smiled at Elrod and I don’t believe he ever did again. For that few minutes that we stood there though, he smiled like I’d never seen. It went on almost too long, like putting too much syrup on your pancakes. I wished there could have been a few more whirligigs. Things were always too damned mean otherwise. It was all funny enough, Daddy and his pride, but I just wonder if any good ever came out of being so bent out of shape all the time. Even if Elrod was a Yankee, he still ate cornbread like the rest of us. Daddy smiled and turned to walk out. Just before the evening sun stole
him from sight he stopped one last time, turned back, shook his head with a laugh. I looked at Elrod knowing that I’d better follow him.
‘Next time you want to…’ he couldn’t finish what he was trying to say.
He put one hand up and threw it down again, forfeiting another game, only this time with a smile. It was a full, blue-gummed Yankee smile that gave a stark contrast to the good old boy mantra that rolled so easily out of his mouth. He was looking at me but acted like he was talking to his mama as he mumbled, ‘I’ll be damned.’