Beans and Chops are both ten years old. Beans, aka John Pascal Williams Jr, looks like a teenager, big for his age, hair and eyes both dark. Everybody calls him Beans because when he was seven he came home for lunch every day one week always asking his mother if they could have beans. Someone had told him that beans would give him gas. His father always complained that gas was so expensive; if he could make some gas for his father then his dad would be happy. He had no idea how he’d get the gas in his dad’s car but John Jr. loved nothing more than making his father happy.
His mother figured the boy loved beans, so she fed him beans once a day for a whole week. He was producing gas all right, gas that escaped during class, announcing its freedom in a noisy and putrid fashion. At suppertime the day it happened, he told his family about the awful time he had. His mother explained why it happened and suggested he shouldn’t eat so many. His older brother Dave, upon hearing the story of the beans, laughed so hard he fell from his chair. From that day on John Jr. was called Beans.
Chops, named Caudwell Horatio Orville Phileas Sangster, is small for his age, making him look more like an eight year old. A cap of reddish curly locks tops his head and freckled cheeks decorated his cherub face. His parents call him Phil. When he started school, the older kids would tell him to “Phil it up” or ask “Are you full, Phil?” or say something that made fun of his name. The teased him so often that after school he would hide in his room and cry big tearful sobs. The torment lasted until summer break. During the holidays, when he was idle, he would print his entire full name on blank paper trying to decide which one he would use when he returned to school in the fall. When he couldn’t decide he printed out the first letter from each name, forming the word CHOPS. He liked how it sounded, so after that he would only answer to Chops. The most peculiar aspect of the new name was that no one made fun of it, not even the older kids.
The boys are neighbours. They’ve played together since they were babies. Their homes are
Chops is in awe of the cart with its black hard rubber tires mounted on shiny red rims, sleek polished wood the color of a summer tan made up the bed and side boards. The two boys always clean it on Sunday afternoon before they set out on their weekly bottle hunt. Right after church the boys change into old dungarees and matching white T’s. They have identical black and white sneakers. They are polishing the frame with an old chamois that Bean’s dad had given them when Chops says, “Can I pull the wagon today, Beans?”
Beans looks over at his friend and saw the sheepish look on his face – he asks the same question every Sunday. Shaking his head yes, Beans says, “You like this wagon, don’t ya?”
Pure pleasure is evident in Chops’ happy grin.
“Oh yeah, I love this wagon; it’s so nifty.”
They line the base of the carrier with pages from a newspaper so that any drips from not quite empty bottles would not stain the polished wood. Chops fans out the pages, being fussier even though it isn’t his. His childish heart knows he will never have one of his own. There are too many siblings, too little money. He always reminds himself that he’s never hungry, his clothes are always clean and his parents never yell at him. He usually got a new toy on his birthday and Christmas, but never anything as grand as a wagon. So he tows his best friend’s wheeled wonder as often as he can.
Beans on the other hand has only one brother and two parents who work. There isn’t a river of money at his home, but no drought either. The wagon hadn’t been a gift. It was a business proposition with his parents. He’d wanted one since he’d seen it at Cottrell’s Hardware.
Before the wagon, he and Beans had made their weekly hunt with burlap bags that grew heavier with each reward they found. The first time, they had collected their bounty as they walked away from home; the trek back with half-full bags slung over their stiffening shoulders convinced them there had to be a better way. The next week, they walked the usual two miles and hunted for empties on the return. But with a wagon, Beans decided, they could go even farther.
He made a deal with his parents. They would buy the wagon and he would pay them back from the earnings he made each week. It was 1959. A stamp was four cents, a gallon of milk cost a dollar, and the wagon sold for $19.95. He received a penny for each empty. Drinking and driving was thought to be great fun back then, so the country roads were usually littered with empty beer bottles after a raunchy country Saturday night with miscreants tossing evidence from moving vehicles. Oddly enough, very few bottles broke.
Today is Sunday, June 21. At one in the afternoon, the sky is dotted with puffs of clouds far apart, giving the hot sun ample time to bake the boys a wee bit browner. They’ve been walking for an hour, dawdling as boys will as they come to the last hill on their route. It’s not very long but oddly steep. The old country road had been tarred and sealed with stone only last year ; the shoulders are raw earth about three feet wide. Grass grows in patches with a few dandelions for color; small potholes and tiny rocks from the roadwork make the wagon hard to pull. When there are no cars coming, they hike on the pavement. The boys would normally not come this far, but at the top of the rise is the Mitchells’ mailbox.
“He told my Dad that Hugh Smith has hit it eight times, keeps promising him a new one. Mr. Mitchell told Huey not to bother, no sense ruining another one.”
Chops nods his head and chuckles. “Makes sense.”
It sounds silly to them; they laugh at most things.
There had been a square dance at Robertson’s Dance Hall the night before so the pickings are heavy this afternoon. There are ten bottles: two Pepsi and a Coke, five Moosehead and two Schooner. Chops walks the edge of the woods twenty feet back from the road, where some of the bottles have flown.
“There’s no broken glass so nobody hit the mailbox last night.”
Beans is organizing the empties to the rear of the wagon, his bangs hanging down over his forehead.
“Huey went out West, that’s why. There’s nothing else, let’s go.”
Both boys tightly grip the loaded wagon that wants to roll away by itself. Starting out on their way back, they hang on to the handle together to slow the cart, letting it roll backwards down the hill. Their boy chatter carries them home as they separate to walk each side of the road. Feathered creatures call to each other, birdsong of mating and warnings accompany them. The one not pulling the wagon is mostly in the ditch and a little further ahead, usually Beans. Each cries out “Another penny” when they find an abandoned bottle. Talking loudly to each other from across the road, the conversation is a continuous stream.
And then Beans says, “We didn’t do very good in school did we? My folks keep telling me I can do better. I hate studying, I only like arithmetic… and comics.”
The topic of school is a tender one for Chops. The new teacher has an obvious dislike for him. He’s not a fast thinker like Beans; he needs to hear complicated things repeated to understand them and their instructor is short on patience. The rural school is one room, thirty-three kids, eight grades. He claims that he cannot devote personal time to each student and ignores those with learning disabilities. There’s no help at home; the Sangster’s as a whole would get a C-.
“I don’t think my folks care; we’re all kinda dumb. I wish I could like arithmetic, but I love reading. And I really like your comics.”
“You’re not dumb. I’ll help you with the arithmetic.”The offer is sincere, both bashful before the banter continues....
Watch next week for Part 2 , the boys discover something.......