Chapter 1: Nicknames
It's funny how people get nicknames.
Some are really obvious. Take my brothers. John David is known as Jack, and Robert Joseph is known as Bobbie Joe. The only other choice for him is Robbie. These names will usually stick with you for life.
Some nicknames are based on something obvious about you. Maybe you're known as Red because of your red hair, or you're known as Curly because of your curly hair, or you're Shorty because, well, you're short. Sometimes these names don't work out so well. Curly might grow up to be a cue ball by the time he's middle-aged and Shorty might end up six-foot-five. Still, for the most part, nicknames are fairly harmless.
Mine didn't turn out like that. My name is Graham Wendell Reaper. Again, it's fairly harmless as far as names go. I asked my parents about my name when I was a kid. I got into a little trouble once, but not because of my nickname, or maybe because of a possible nickname. I must have been about eight or so.
We were in the living room, me, Jack, and Dad, while Mom was in the kitchen right around the corner working on dinner. I don't know where Bobbie Joe was, but he was only three at the time, so he might have been in jail. That was what we called the penned-in portion of the family room, where Bobbie Joe couldn't get into too much trouble. "Where'd my name come from?" I asked.
"Hmmm?" commented my father, putting down the newspaper.
"My name, Graham Wendell Reaper. Why'd I get named that?"
"Oh. You're named after your grandfathers."
"Huh?" I asked. I only knew my grandparents as Grandma and Grandpa and Nana and Papa. I supposed they had names, but it never really occurred to me before.
"My father is named John Graham Reaper and your mother's father..."
"Papa?" Dad's parents were Grandpa and Grandma. Papa and Nana were Mom's parents.
He nodded. "Yes, Papa's name is Everett Wendell Simmons. So we took their middle names and gave them to you."
I thought about that a second. "Okay. And Jack is named after you?" Dad nodded. I knew my father's name was Jack, because that was what Mom called him. Sometimes she called him other things, especially if they were arguing. They didn't do that often, but Mom could get a temper. "How come he's not Jack Junior?"
Jack, my brother Jack, looked up at this. "Because we don't have the same name," explained my father. "My full name is John Henry Reaper and Jack's is John David Reaper. You can't be a junior without having the same name."
"Oh." It sounded like there were a lot of rules about names.
Jack asked, "So who was David?" He was six.
"My brother, your Uncle Dave."
"Oh." Jack shrugged his shoulders and went back to playing his video game.
"Who was Bobbie Joe named after?" I asked.
Dad grunted and said, "The mailman."
At that a wet dishcloth came flying in from the kitchen and caught Dad in the face. "I heard that!" said Mom.
He snorted and tossed the dishcloth to me. "Give that back to your mother and ask her about Bobbie Joe."
Weird! I went out to the kitchen and Mom loudly said, "Your father thinks he's funny!" Dad made a grunt from the living room and Jack giggled. Mom looked down at me. "Bobbie Joe is named after my brothers, your Uncle Bob and Uncle Joe."
"Now, wash up for dinner and set the table."
Jack tried to give me a nickname after that. He knew my middle name was Wendell, so he called me 'Wendy' one night right before dinner. I popped him in the nose, which got him to crying, and then Dad tanned my hide. When Jack laughed at that, he got his bottom walloped as well. We both missed supper that night. Afterwards Jack was smart enough to not try calling me a girl's name.
So that's where our names came from, but it doesn't explain my nickname. That occurred a few months later, in the summer. That was when Bobbie Joe went into the hospital. I don't think Jack understood, since he was seven, but I had turned nine in March. See, Bobbie Joe was deaf, sort of, or at least he didn't hear very well. He almost never talked, and what he said you couldn't understand. At the beginning of June Dad took off a few days of work to stay home with Jack and me, and Mom took Bobbie Joe to the hospital. Dad said he had to get tubes in his ears so he could hear better. He came home the next day.
The first thing I did was to look real close at him, since I didn't see anything hanging out of his ears! "Where's the tubes?" I asked. I was expecting something like an inner tube, but maybe that was too big. Maybe it was more like the macaroni we had glued on stuff in second grade and covered with glitter.
Mom laughed and smiled. She seemed pretty happy. "You can't see them. They're inside his ears. They are very small."
I knew something was different, though. Bobbie Joe was looking at everybody as they spoke and began to talk to us, not that I could understand what he was saying. Still, if you talked to him, he would say something. Mom kept hugging him and kissing him for a few days. I also remember Dad commenting, "Christ, Maureen! Now you'll never get him to shut up!" Mom laughed at that, too.
Bobbie Joe seemed determined to make up for the last three years by never stopping talking. Unfortunately, he didn't speak all that well. Mom assured us that as he got more practice, he would be more understandable, and began taking him to a speech therapist. He did get better, too, a lot better. Still, he was the one who gave me my nickname, simply because he couldn't pronounce my name. He just couldn't figure out Graham, and called me 'Grim'. I tried correcting him all summer, but he was hopeless. By the time he was actually able to pronounce my name, the nickname had stuck. I was now known as Grim Reaper to everyone. It was a few more years before I understood why all the grownups who heard this gave me funny looks the first time.
In the summer of 1994 I was in between third and fourth grade at Matucket Plains Elementary School. Matucket is in the middle of Matucket County in Georgia, and is pretty much all of Matucket County. As counties go, it isn't very big, and is mostly Matucket and East Matucket, and some surrounding places. I looked it up on a map and we're west of Atlanta, in between Haralson and Carroll Counties, near Alabama. I-20 is the main east-west road and runs right through the middle of Matucket. Running north and south is State Route 389. It's a pretty neat place, but kind of quiet. I told my parents once I wanted to live somewhere more exciting, and they laughed and said Matucket was exciting enough, thank you.
I was doing what I normally did that summer, which was goof off with my friends and try to keep my parents from figuring out what I was up to. We lived in a development called Pine Glens, and when my buddies and I weren't building or rebuilding our tree fort behind the Jenkins place, we were down by Taney's Creek skipping stones and chasing frogs. We also used to go up to the school and play catch on the baseball diamond. If you left the house early enough, you might be able to skip out on any chores before your parents figured it out.
Sometimes that didn't work out so well. I skipped out on taking the garbage out to the road and we got skipped over by the garbage truck, and I got grounded for a week, to 'remind' me to take it out the next week. Since I couldn't leave the property (and Mom was home taking care of Bobbie Joe, so I couldn't sneak out) I ended up throwing a tennis ball against the end of the house and catching it with my baseball glove. Our house was red brick, and Dad had allowed us to draw a circle on it with chalk. You got it in the circle, it was a strike. The return was a bit iffy at times, since sometimes the tennis ball would hit in the mortar groove between the bricks and head off anywhere else. Our pointer, Duke, was with me, sleeping on the side of the lawn and occasionally waking up to growl at birds and squirrels. He was good about chasing after the ball if it went on a wild tangent, but not so good about giving it back, and it was always wet and soggy when he did so. You learned to play with several spare tennis balls.
"Hi! What's your name?" I heard from behind me.
I stopped my windup and turned around. It was a small girl, maybe my age or younger, and she was riding a bike on the sidewalk. "I'm Graham. Who are you?" She was wearing the standard Georgia summer uniform of shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers, just like me.
"I'm Kelly. We just moved here. Whatcha' doing?"
Wow, were girls dumb, or what? "I'm practicing my pitching. I'm going to be a pitcher for the Braves someday. Watch!" I turned back to the wall and went into my windup. I missed the circle, but only by an inch or so. The ball bounced back and I didn't catch it, but I still got my glove on it and it fell to the ground at my feet. I grabbed it before Duke could get to it.
"You missed," she told me.
"Yeah? Watch this!" I turned back to the wall and did a really elaborate windup, looking at both first and third bases, twisting all around and kicking my left leg up before rocketing the ball towards home plate. I really had some pepper on the ball this time and I nailed it right in the center of the circle! Yes! That would show her!
And the ball smacked into a piece of mortar at the edge of a groove and rebounded wildly, up and off to my right side, like a pop fly. I started moving in that direction, and Duke started running, and Kelly yelled, "I'll get it!" and she took off on her bike.
Unfortunately, we all got there at the same time. Duke was the smart one and managed to avoid the pileup. I got tangled in Kelly's left handlebar and she tumbled off the bike, landing half on the grass and half on the sidewalk. "Ow! Ow! Ow!" She was grabbing her right knee and yelling like it had fallen off or something! I mean, it was bleeding, but not like in gushers. I'd been hurt lots worse, but she was a girl after all.
I pulled her bike off of her. "Let me see." Duke came over and began licking Kelly's face, and she took her hands away from her knee to push Duke away. She had some scrapes on her right knee, and some blood, but I knew what to do. "I saw this on television last night! I can make a tourniquet!"
I pulled my t-shirt off and wrapped it around her knee. "Come on! Let's get to the house and call the ambulance! My mom's a nurse, she'll know all about it!"
We semi-hobbled over to the back door and I let her in, trailed by Duke. She was too short for me to put her arm around my shoulder, not that I wanted to. My tennis ball ended up rolling into the sewer. Still, maybe there'd be some more bloodshed and we'd get to call for an ambulance.
Mom came down when she heard the commotion. "Graham, what in the world ... Who are you?"
"I'm Kelly O'Connor."
Both Kelly and I tried telling Mom what had happened. After a minute of that, she said, "Okay, let me look at your leg."
Kelly peeled off my t-shirt, and showed Mom her right knee. Mom took my t-shirt and grimaced.
"Will she need a tourniquet?" I asked, hopefully.
"No, she'll need mercurochrome and a Band-Aid! She's in more danger from your shirt than anything else!" Kelly giggled at that. Mom added, "That's disgusting. You go wash up and put a clean shirt on while I look at this."
"No ambulance?" I pressed.
I went up to the bathroom and washed my hands and face, and then put on a clean shirt before heading back to the basement. Kelly wasn't there anymore, but was in the hall bathroom with Mom, with Bobbie Joe watching and talking to her and Kelly talking to him. Mom washed her knee and was rubbing on some mercurochrome while Kelly went, "Ow! Ow! Ow!" Bobbie Joe imitated her. I watched and Mom finished it with a large Band-Aid.
"There, good as new." She bent over and gave the Band-Aid a kiss. "Now, let's get you home and show your parents."
Kelly laughed and said, "Now it's his turn." She pointed at me.
"Huh?" I said.
"You have to kiss it, too," she told me.
"No way! Yuck!"
Mom was laughing at this. "Oh, boy, are you in trouble now!"
Kelly smiled and said, "You put the tourniquet on, so you have to kiss it now, too!"
"Or I'll tell my mother it was all your fault," she finished.
"It was your ball! I was going after it and you knocked me off my bike."
I turned to Mom. "It wasn't like that! I didn't knock her off her bike! She fell!"
"Don't get me involved in this," she laughed.
Kelly stuck her knee towards me.
"Mom, I can't! This is ... is ... blackmail! That's what it is, blackmail!"
"I'd pucker up, buster."
"NO!" I moved towards the door, but Mom grabbed me. "MOM!" She kept me from escaping, so I had to bend over and kiss Kelly's knee.
"I feel better already!" laughed Kelly, who got up off the toilet seat she had been sitting on.
"I need to vomit!" I said.
"Alright, enough out of you. Let's take Kelly home and tell her mother about this," replied my mother.
She shooed us out of the bathroom, and grabbed Bobbie Joe and loaded him into his stroller. Kelly lived about four houses up the street, on the corner. I had seen the moving van there a few days ago. We walked up the street, with me pushing the bicycle and Kelly pushing Bobbie Joe's stroller.
Kelly led the way and after we got to the corner she turned and rolled the stroller into the back yard. She went to the back door and opened it and yelled out, "MOM!" at the top of her lungs. "MOM!"
Mom and I stayed outside with Bobbie Joe, and we heard somebody coming to the back door. "Kelly, what have I said about yelling in the house? What happened to you?" Through the screen we could see Kelly pulling her mother along by the hand. She saw us standing there and said, "Hello. Who are you?"
"Hi. I'm Maureen Reaper. We live down the street." Mom pointed in the direction of our house. "Kelly fell off her bike in front of our house and skinned her knee. I wanted to make sure we got her home and told you."
"Well, come on in. I'm Sharon O'Connor." She pushed the screen door open. "Come on in." She looked at me and asked, "What's your name?"
"That's Grim," answered Kelly.
Kelly's mom gave me a funny look. "You're the Grim Reaper? I think you're a little young for that job."
Mom started laughing. "No, he's Graham. Bobbie Joe calls him Grim." That got the two women to start chatting, and Kelly and I were basically left to our own devices.
Kelly took me on a tour of the house, which wasn't all that necessary. It looked a lot like our house only backwards, sort of. She was the only kid living there, and her room was full of My Little Pony toys, and I got out of there as soon as possible! I could just feel the cooties sinking in while I was standing there and looking in the door! After that we went down to the basement and then out to the backyard, and from there down to the crick behind our row of homes. We walked along the crick until we heard out mothers calling our names.
We went back to the house and found Mom putting Bobbie Joe back in his stroller. "Come, on Graham, it's time to go. I need to start dinner before your father gets home."
"Make sure to come back," said Kelly's mom. "It's good to meet the neighbors. Maybe we can have a party. And it's good to see Kelly making friends."
I gave a horrified look at that. Kelly was NOT a friend! She was a girl! And she made me kiss her knee! That was just beyond the limit! I left the house silently vowing to never speak to her again.
Mom had a different take on it. She smiled at Kelly and said, "Oh, I can tell you're going to be trouble someday."
Kelly's mom agreed and said, "Seamus said that the first time he saw her after she was born."
At dinner that night, Mom told Dad what had happened, including my desire to put a tourniquet on Kelly's leg and ride in the ambulance with the sirens blaring and the lights flashing. Dad snorted and laughed at that, though Jack agreed that the idea was, "Cool!"
"She's a very nice young girl. Real Irish, too," she added.
"Oh?" commented my father.
Mom nodded. "Red hair, green eyes, freckles. It's like she stepped out of an Irish Spring commercial!"
Dad laughed at that. "Hah! Well, with a name like Kelly O'Connor, that's not much of a surprise. What about her parents? They must be Irish, too."
"Half and half. Her mother is from Savannah but her father's name is Seamus and he's from Belfast, in Ireland."
"Well, there you go." Dad looked at me. "Too bad you didn't get to see anything too gruesome. Still, I'm glad you helped her. I think I'm lifting your grounding long enough to go fishing tomorrow with me and your brother."
"Yes!" I exclaimed.
Mom gave a disapproving, "Jack!"
"And then you're grounded again until garbage day," he added.
That mollified Mom, and I looked over at Jack and grinned. Dad owned a flat-bottomed fishing skiff with an outboard motor and every couple of weekends he would take us over to Lake Matucket and we'd go fishing for bass. Bobbie Joe was too small, although Jack did suggest tying a rope around him and using him as bait. Mom gave him a rap on the head for that, and then another to Dad when he looked thoughtful and nodded.
Jack just had to push it, though. "So, Grim's got a girlfriend!"
"I do not have a girlfriend! I don't like her! I don't ever want to see her again!"
"Grim's got a girlfriend! Grim's got a girlfriend!"
This time it was Dad who reached over and rapped Jack. "I don't have to take you fishing." Jack shut up. Dad looked over at me and smiled. "You're smart. Girls are nothing but trouble! They're yucky and have cooties and stuff."
Mom laughed at that. "You seem to like my cooties!"
Dad just looked at me and Jack. "I was a happy guy until I met girls. Now, take your plates out and clear the table."
Mom was laughing at Dad as we took stuff off the table. In the kitchen Jack lowered his voice and asked, "Was Dad talking about Mom? Was she a girl?"
"No way. Mom's a mom, and she's old, too."
We must not have been as quiet as we thought, because the next thing we heard was a shriek out of Mom and a laugh out of Dad. We scooted out of the kitchen and headed down to the family room.