A dark version of “The Wonder Years,” Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom is “The Great Santini” written by Homer, careening through a coarse world of racism, adultery, abandonment, and even the occasional hope.
It’s summer, 1965. School’s out and Butch’s birthday is in a few weeks. Perfect; three months of freeze tag, hide and seek and riding his bike way past dark. Well, maybe not completely perfect — Frank Vaughn, a classmate, is beaten to death by his crazy mother for leaving a report card at school. On top of that, Dad is touchier than ever and Mom sadder, so best to hide out next door with his best friend Tommy reading X-Men and hoping for that birthday GI Joe.
But in one night, Butch’s summer explodes and he’s now riding across a turbulent and changing Dixie in a white Rambler station wagon, at the mercy of a manic depressive and wildly violent Dad. Like a crewman on Ulysses’ ship, Butch encounters a one-eyed evil grandfather, a 12-year-old Siren, the lotus-eaters of Alabama…and Frank Vaughn. If Butch ever sees his beloved sister, Cindy, again, it’ll be a miracle. If he’s alive at the end of the summer, it’ll be a bigger one.
Butch sat on the porch watching the girls skip rope:
“Frank Vaughn, killed by his mom
Lying in bed alooone,
She picked up a bat
And gave him a whack
And broke his head to the booone
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…”
…and so on.
Cindy reached the twenties before snagging a toe, but Frank’s mom couldn’t have hit him that many times. A lot, but not that many.
Immortalized in skip rhyme. Amazing. It had been what, only a week? Frank was still on TV. Pat Jarrod, the Channel 7 news anchor, was all grim last night while narrating the film of Frank’s dad escorting Frank’s mom, very pretty in a silk dress and beehive hairdo, into the Lawton Court House. Mr. Vaughn was wearing his class-A uniform and dark glasses and looked like the President of Vietnam, and his wife looked like Mrs. President of Vietnam.
“They’re Filipino,” dad said.
Could’ve been a state visit, except no one was happy.
Butch had been surprised when Frank’s dad helped Mrs. Frank up the courthouse stairs.
Odd. He should be really mad at her, but there he was, being nice. The girls weren’t being nice; they were making fun of Frank, which wasn’t right. Wasn’t like it was Frank’s fault or anything.
Cindy was in again and the others—Lynn and Debbie, Carlafromdownthestreet, Maria and Joseph (who might as well be a girl), and some random passersby—were doing their best to trip her up while staying on the Frank call. You’d think they’d get tired of it, go on to “Spank” or “Battleship,” but no. Butch should go over and tell them to stop, but that would invoke the deadly kid “Ewww!” response and its follow-up, “Go away, you big baby, we’ll do what we want!” and even Cindy would join in because this was the herd, although she’d be gentle. He’d be humiliated and might get his suit, the same one he wore to Frank’s funeral, dirty, which meant a beating and not going to Dale’s graduation.
Best to stay here.
Graduation. Sure making a big deal. All of them dressed up, even Art, with some put-together shirt and skinny tie that wasn’t a suit at all, something Butch, with great delight, repeatedly pointed out. Cindy had on a flowered dress with a yellow silk belt and mom had brushed her red-blonde hair until it was full and fluffy and floated like a cloud, as it did now inside the rope…twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six. She wouldn’t get dirty.
Never did. Even when they had mud ball fights and slid head first, screaming and laughing, down the crap hills piled up by the bulldozer guys building apartments near the ball fields, only Butch came back with twenty or thirty layers of dirt hiding his identity. She was untouched. She was perfect.
She was beautiful.
Butch watched her, and his heart soared and knew he was lucky to be her brother…okay, adopted brother. All the boys wanted to cut the string on her finger but she wouldn’t let them, and all the girls wanted to play with her, just her, but she played with them all, no favorites, her laughter ringing up and down the hallways of B.C. Swinney Elementary.
Because of Cindy, the bullies more or less left Butch alone and the other kids tolerated his goofiness. In any other family, that’d be enough. But she favored him, him, over the smart, handsome boys who pursued her on the playground and the sophisticated girls who called her on the phone. Butch was her sole companion when she ran through the alley and over the crap hills. They rolled down the slopes together until they were so dizzy that earth and sky blurred and then they lay on their backs and made things out of clouds and said their secrets and never, ever, told on each other. She didn’t call him stupid or spaz or any of the other names everyone including dad did; she covered for him, even made him look better than he was to the other kids. Even now, somehow she’d disentangle him if he went over there and screamed at the girls for making fun of Frank. Without her, he’d be dead.
Just like Frank.
Tommy walked up the mile-high steps onto the porch and scooted Cha Cha, who lay next to Butch, out of the way. The dog smiled good-naturedly as Tommy sat down and handed Butch a Journey Into Mystery, “To Kill a Thunder God”! Good cover with the Destroyer on it and Butch flipped to “The Crimson Hand,” one of the Tales of Asgard. He’d already read it, but he liked to re-read things he liked, and the Norse myths fascinated him. Tommy had X-Men #12, “The Origin of Professor X”! and Butch glanced over. His copy was in the house. He and Tommy had bought probably the last two left at Carl’s Drug Store, thank God, before someone else got them. Good issue, but he wasn’t sure which origin story, Professor X’s or Juggernaut’s, was the more compelling. Juggernaut was magic, not a mutant. That made him hard to defeat.
“You wanna read this one?” Tommy had caught his glance and shook the X-Men at him.
Yes, but Asgard first.
Butch finger-waved it away, already back on the Hand. Tommy grunted and turned to the page showing Juggernaut at Professor X’s feet, helmet off, surprised by a Professor X-guided Angel attack. Butch abandoned Asgard for Juggernaut’s terrified face. There’s always a weakness. Just had to find it.
“Why you all dressed up?” Tommy asked.
“Oh,” Tommy nodded and looked at the girls. Tommy was in sixth grade now but, next year, moved on to middle school. Next week Butch turned ten, double-digits at last, teenagery mere scattered months beyond, a birthday of grand implications heralded with cupcakes and ice cream and singing and presents and maybe, please God, that longed-for GI Joe. Butch looked forward to it with all the twittery anticipation of a Christmas morning. But their mutual promotions might have a dangerous effect on their friendship.
Tommy lived right next door, very convenient for a best friend, and there were hardly two hours straight in the day that Butch wasn’t at Tommy’s or the other way around. They played army, with Tommy the Americans and Butch the Germans, or Civil War, with Tommy the North and Butch the Rebs, or Marvel, with Tommy as Dr. Strange or Reed Richards and Butch as Dormammu or Doctor Doom. Occasionally, Chuckie from two doors down joined them when he wasn’t in trouble, or Dale (funny that he had Butch’s sister’s name) from across the street when he was visiting his aunt. But those were interludes Butch really didn’t like because, invariably, Chuckie or Dale teased Butch about something stupid he did or said and Tommy let them continue until Butch cried and went home.
The best times were right now, side by side, reading Marvel. Tommy got him started a few years ago, dragged Butch and his weekly quarter off to Carl’s. “Don’t buy baseball cards, jerko, lookee here!”
Tommy had spun the magazine rack to a slot containing a Fantastic Four #1 with that big green thing coming out of the street.
Butch liked Batman, and Sergeant Rock and the tank haunted by the ghost of General Stuart in GI Combat, but this! He bought the FF and a Two-Gun Kid and still had one cent left over for bubblegum with a Luis Tiant and Tug McGraw inside to trade later.
So who’s the jerko, jerko?
They had raced to Tommy’s back porch and Tommy read the comics aloud because Butch couldn’t read yet. First grade was still months away, and he hadn’t gone to kindergarten like Cindy and Art. If it hadn’t been for those comic books and Green Eggs and Ham, Butch wouldn’t have had a clue what a letter was, much less whole words, when he walked into Miss MacDonald’s first-grade class that fall.
Now, look at him. He read as well as Tommy, maybe better. Butch had read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer five times already, loving each pass-through. Miss Hale, the most beautiful second-grade teacher in the world, had read it to them during story time. Enthralled, Butch had pestered her to do so again, and she asked, “Would you like to read it for yourself?”
“Maybe a little advanced, Butch, but if you think you can do it …”
He sure did think he could do it. Hadn’t he blasted through the SRAs, didn’t he swap Happy Hollisters with the third graders and wasn’t he a Marvel True Believer? She lent him her copy and he finished it in a week, and Miss Hale was so astonished she gave it to him when school ended. He could read anything now, couldn’t he?
Call me a bookworm, dad, I don’t care.
But all that was in jeopardy. If there was one group of kids with which middle schoolers had no truck, it was elementaries … like Butch. Butch wouldn’t ascend to seventh grade until Tommy was already in ninth, one year away from high school, and ninth graders had even less truck with seventh graders. Their friendship was aging out. It was more than likely that this summer was the very last time that he and Tommy could, or would, remain the best of friends.
That prospect gave Butch the chills, and he glanced apprehensively at his very best friend in the entire universe and, oh my God, look at this, Tommy was still on the girls. Butch frowned. Tommy had the narrowed eyes that dad got whenever he looked at bent-over girls or girls walking by in their bathing suits. Butch always looked away feeling guilty, even though he didn’t understand why. Dad, though, stayed on them; smiled, too.
Wait. Wrong word—’leered,’ yeah, that’s it. An ugly word. But appropriate.
About the Author
D. Krauss resides in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. He has been, at various times: a cottonpicker, a sodbuster, a librarian, a surgical orderly, the guy who paints the little white line down the middle of the road, a weatherman, a door-kickin’ shove-gun-in-face lawman, a hunter of terrorists, and a school bus driver (and a layabout, don’t forget that). He’s been married for over 40 years, and has a wildman bass guitarist for a son.