You got dirt in your ears boy? – Friday Fiction
“You got dirt in your ears, boy?” Butch Wheeler shouted in a booming voice.
Lost in the thumping of tires against the road and thoughts of how to explain himself to this never-before-seen grandpa, Ethan Allen looked over. “Dirt in my ears?”
“Yeah. Four times I asked, whatcha thinking about Jack, but you sit there like you’re deaf as a stone.”
“Oh, sorry,” Ethan said with a sheepish grin. Obviously, he was gonna have to keep an ear open for answering to the name of Jack Mahoney.
“No harm done.” Butch Wheeler signaled for a left hand turn, then pulled into the line of cars waiting for the ferry to dock.
Ethan craned his neck, checking out the cars on both sides of the truck. He saw plenty of Fords, Plymouths, and Pontiacs, but, happily, no police cars. All he needed now was another hour or two of luck. Once he made it to the mainland Scooter would never find him. Never in a million years. Even if Cobb nosed around the truckers asking if they knew anything of Ethan Allen Doyle, they’d say no and shake their head. Good thing he’d thought to say his name was Jack Mahoney.
They sat there for another twenty minutes, the chickens squawking and the motor grumbling like it was in need of some oil. Finally the line of cars began to inch forward. They’d moved two, maybe three, car lengths when Ethan spotted a uniformed man up ahead. His heart came to a standstill—no beating, no pumping blood in one side and out the other, nothing. It could be they had his picture. If that was the case it wouldn’t matter what name he was using. A faint heartbeat started up again and he slid closer to the door, looping his fingers around the handle. He could run if he had to, if his heart held out long enough, but maybe… He turned and in the high-pitched voice of a castrated canary said, “Okay if I squat down under the seat when that policeman gets here?”
“Policeman?” Butch roared. A cascade of laughter slid down his chins and set his belly to bouncing. “Why, that man’s just a ticket taker!” He laughed again, then said, “But you…well, now, you got the look of a lad who’s up to something.”
Ethan’s mouth flew open. “Not me,” he stammered. “I ain’t up to nothing!”
“Is that so?” Butch said, a chuckle still rumbling through his chins. “Could be you robbed a bank. You got the shifty eyes of a bank robber. Yes, sir, robbed a bank, or maybe stole that dog. You do either of those things, boy?”
“No, sir,” Ethan Allen answered in earnest. “I never robbed no bank, and this here dog was a birthday present from my mama.”
“That so?” Butch laughed again, then stuck his arm out the window and handed the uniformed man his ticket. Once the ferry was underway, he turned to the boy and asked, “You running away from home, Jack? Is that why you’re so skittish about the police?”
Ethan Allen had now tuned his ear to listening for the name Jack and answered, “No, sir.”
“Your mama, she knows where you’re headed?”
“And she allows for you to be hitching rides on chicken trucks?”
Ethan could make up stories quicker than you’d imagine possible, and he could tell them in a way that was most convincing. He also knew when he was skating too close to the edge of believability, and the look on Butch Wheeler’s face indicated it was time for him to move back. “Truth is,” Ethan said in a heavy-hearted voice, “my mama’s dead. But when she was breathing her last, she told me to go live with Grandpa.”
“Honest! Look here.” Ethan fished in his pocket and pulled out a card that read “Love, Grandpa.” “See, this is who I’m supposed to go live with.”
“Oh? And where exactly does this grandpa live?”
Ethan showed the back flap of the envelope with Charlie Doyle’s return address.
“Doyle, huh? He your mama’s daddy?”
Still tuned in to using the name Mahoney, Ethan nodded.
Butch handed the envelope back. “Where’s your own daddy?”
“He got shot in the war and died.” Ethan thought about adding that his daddy had been a hero with all kinds of medals, but he decided against it. Sometimes saying too much was what could get a fellow in trouble.
“That’s sure enough a rotten break,” Butch said, “but it don’t explain you being so afraid of the law.”
“If they get hold of me, they’ll lock me up in an orphanage. This kid I know got sent to an orphanage, and he said it was God awful. They make you sleep on the floor and eat things that ain’t fit for human consumption.”
“It ain’t quite that bad,” Butch said with an easy smile, “but it sure enough ain’t pleasant. Anyway, you got no worries. You got blood kin willing to claim you.” He glanced over at the way one side of the boy’s mouth was sloping toward his chin. “Your grandpa knows you’re coming, don’t he?”
Ethan forced a happy-looking smile onto his face and nodded.
After that things went along smooth as a pig’s belly. Butch Wheeler unloaded the crates of chickens in Richmond, then turned west onto Route 33 and drove Ethan Allen all the way to Wyattsville, right to the front door of his grandpa’s apartment building. “You want me to go in with you?” Butch asked, but the boy shook his head and hurried off.