Thomas Wictor

Put the pie back

Put the pie back

When we’ve settled Mom and Dad’s estates and sold the three houses and their contents, Tim and I plan on moving to Austin, Texas. We’re a bit nervous about it. From 1972 to 1975, we lived in Tyler, Texas. It wasn’t very fun. We were aliens from Venezuela, and this was a different era. But a Texan saved me by snapping, “Put the pie back.”

Our house was magnificent. It sat on seven acres of land, an incomprehensibly large span of ground. There were pine trees a hundred feet tall. Our dog Charlie—a Venezuelan German Shepherd-Dachshund mix—loved it. He raced cars. I don’t mean he drove them on a track, but he ran along beside them, inside the fence. Tim took a picture of Charlie in a typical jaunty stance, gamboling on our massive property.

An ancient, three-legged border collie named Chubby came with the house. His owners took him fifty miles away, but he kept returning to his home, so they asked us to keep him. We agreed. After he and Charlie had a couple of fights, they learned that seven acres were big enough for the two of them. Here are Charlie, Chubby, and my brother Pat.

We acquired a cat named Nuisance, who loved the giant yard as much as the dogs did. Charlie and Chubby didn’t bother Nuisance, and he wasn’t afraid of them.

Here’s Dad on one of the bikes he got us at Sears.

They were death traps. We had to assemble them ourselves, which was supposed to teach us mechanical aptitude. The road on which we lived had two massive hills and no shoulders. This is our mailbox, with my sister Carrie in the background.

The day we received and assembled our bikes, we went out and rode down the first hill. I hadn’t tightened the bolts enough; my front wheel came off, and the fork dug into the soft asphalt. I went over the handlebars and faceplanted the road. The impact was unbelievable, like an explosion inside my head. I still remember the sound: G’DOOMP!

I got up and staggered back to the house, bleeding heavily. We went to the hospital, where tests determined that I had a severe concussion. The doctor said to take me home but not let me sleep for the rest of the day, because I could go into a coma. Everything was in slow motion, I was horribly nauseated, and my vision was impaired. The air looked to be full of tiny black hairs, swirling along in their billions.

Mom put me on the couch in Dad’s study and came in every few minutes.

“Tommy? Don’t fall asleep, now.”

Having my front wheel fall off at top speed gave me a lifelong fear of bicycles. I never went fast on them again.

For whatever reason Mom liked to rake up tons of leaves from our plantation of a yard.

I think it was a stress buster; she looks pretty loony in that shot. Like the rest of us, she was very unhappy in Texas. I fared the worst, nearly failing fifth grade and becoming the target of savage kids who were sixteen years old and lived in tarpaper shacks in swamps. We lasted less than a week on the bus, so Mom had to drive us to school and pick us up.

As my grades cratered, I discovered an oasis. At the end of our street, right on Loop 323, was a nursery run by a man named McPhail. He was gruff and craggy, but I liked him instantly. He let me come to his nursery and spend hours just sitting, smelling the strange odors and drinking the ice-cold root beer from his vending machine. We didn’t talk; he worked, and I sat quietly. Mr. McPhail’s nursery was the only place where I wasn’t afraid.

My grades got worse, as did the bullying. I began shoplifting everywhere I went. It was always small things that I could slip into my coat pocket. I didn’t shoplift from Mr. McPhail, but all other stores were fair game.

One day Mom and I were at a gas station. I went inside, carefully looked around, and stuck a Hostess apple pie in my pocket.

I turned to leave, and a young man blocked my way. He’d come out of nowhere. Powerfully built, he had a crew cut and an impassive face.

“Put the pie back,” he said.

I complied, my own face burning.

“Don’t come here no more,” he advised. I’ve never been more ashamed of anything in my life, and I’ve never forgotten how he spoke to me.

Mom didn’t see any of it. In the car on the way home, I thought about jumping out and killing myself, but I lacked the courage. What I did decide was that I’d never steal anything again. Somehow I kept that promise.

In 2000 I drove across the country to meet a hippie. It was a disaster. On the way home, I stopped in Tyler, Texas, to see if our old house still stood. As I cruised Loop 323, I recognized nothing at all. I may as well have been visiting Budapest. The radio played The Big Show, with John Boy and Billy. Driving this once-again alien landscape, I listened as John Boy and Billy did a skit about being trapped on a desert island together and putting pineapples up their butts.

There was the noise you get when you rub a balloon, sploip sounds, screams, and a chorus of male voices in the studio laughing like hyenas. The hippie-turned-ghost had utterly desecrated me, so it seemed fitting that I should listen to grown men pretend to shove pineapples into their rectums.

After much searching, I found our house. It was unchanged. Though I took several photos, it wouldn’t be right to post them.

Mr. McPhail’s nursery was gone. In its place was a church.

I find that comforting. Mr. McPhail’s nursery was a sanctuary, my own private church. Both Mr. McPhail and the young man who caught me shoplifting were clerics of sorts. In their own ways, each helped me immensely.

They have my gratitude.

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