The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis

Barbara O'Connor

Square Fish

Chapter 1

     Drip.
     Drip.
     Drip.
     Popeye opened his eye and looked up at the heart-shaped stain on the ceiling of his bedroom. Rusty water squeezed out of the hole in the peeling plaster and dropped onto the foot of his bed.
     Drip.
     Drip.
     Drip.
     It had been raining for over a week.
     All day.
     Every day.
     The stain on the ceiling used to be a tiny circle. Popeye had watched it grow a little more each day.
     He got out of bed and nudged Boo with his foot. The old dog lifted his head and looked up at Popeye, his sagging skin drooping down over his sad, watery eyes.
     “Still raining,” Popeye said.
     Boo’s big, heavy head flopped back down on the floor, and he let out a long, low dog groan.
     Popeye padded across the cracked linoleum floor of the hallway and into the bathroom. He splashed water on his face and ran his wet fingers over his head. The stubble of his new summer buzz cut felt scratchy, like a cat’s tongue. His white scalp showed through his pale blond hair.
     He examined his teeth in the mirror.
     They looked clean.
     He rubbed his good eye.
     Then he rubbed his bad eye. The one that was always squinted shut thanks to his uncle Dooley.
     Popeye hadn’t always been Popeye. Before he was three years old, he had been Henry.
     But when he was three, his uncle Dooley had placed a small green crab apple on the fence post out back and turned to his girlfriend and said, “Watch this, Charlene.”
     Then he had walked back twenty paces, like a gunslinger, taken aim with his Red Ryder BB gun, and pulled the trigger.
     Dooley was not a very good aim.
     Charlene was not impressed.
     When the BB hit Henry square in the eye, she had screamed bloody murder and carried on so much that when Popeye’s grandmother, Velma, came running out of the house to see what all the fuss was about, she had thought it was Charlene who’d been shot in the eye.
     Popeye had been Popeye ever since.
     And Charlene was long gone. (Which hadn’t bothered Dooley one little bit ’cause there were plenty more where she came from.)
     Popeye went up the hall to the kitchen, his bare feet stirring up little puffs of dust on the floor. Velma didn’t care much about keeping a clean house. She mainly cared about not cracking up.
     “You get old, you crack up,” she told Popeye when she couldn’t find her reading glasses or opened the closet door and forgot why.
     While Popeye made toast with powdered sugar on top, Velma sat at the kitchen table with her eyes closed, reciting the kings and queens of England in chronological order.
     “Edward V, Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I . . .”
     Popeye knew that when she got to the last one, Elizabeth II, she would probably start all over again.
     “Egbert, Ethelwulf, Ethelbald, Ethelbert . . .”
     Reciting the kings and queens of England in chronological order was exercising Velma’s brain and keeping her from cracking up.
     But sometimes, Popeye worried that it wasn’t working.
     This was a big worry.
     Popeye needed Velma to not crack up because no one else in his family was very good at taking care of things.
     Not his father, who lived up in Chattanooga and sold smoke-damaged rugs out of the back of a pickup truck.
     Not his mother, who came and went but never told anybody where she came from or where she went to.
     And definitely not his uncle Dooley, who lived in a rusty trailer in the backyard and sometimes worked at the meatpacking plant and sometimes sold aluminum siding and sometimes watched TV all day.
     Popeye’s grandmother, Velma, was the only one good at taking care of things.
     “Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II.” Velma opened her eyes. Instead of starting all over again with Egbert, she shuffled over to the kitchen counter and poured herself a cup of coffee.
     “Hey there, burrhead,” she said, running her hand over Popeye’s fuzzy buzz cut.
     “Hey.”
     “What’re you gonna do today?”
     Popeye shrugged.
     “This dern rain is driving me nuts,” she said, stirring a heaping spoonful of sugar into her coffee.
     Popeye stared out at the muddy yard. A waterfall of rust-colored rainwater poured off the edge of the metal roof of the shed out back and made a river. The river snaked its way down the gravel driveway and into the drainage ditch that ran along the side of the road. The ditch was nearly overflowing. Every now and then, soda cans or plastic bags floated by in front of the house.
     Boo ambled into the kitchen and ate a scrap of toast off the floor under the table, his tail wagging in slow motion.
     Back . . .
     And forth.
     Back . . .
     And forth.
     Popeye licked powdered sugar off his fingers and went into the living room.
     Dooley was stretched out on the couch, snoring one of those throat-gurgling kinds of snores. The smell of cigarettes hovered in the air around him and clung to the worn corduroy couch.
     Popeye flopped into Velma’s big armchair. The metal tray table beside it was stacked with crossword puzzle magazines. Crossword puzzles were good brain exercises, too. Velma knew more words than anybody. She taught Popeye one new word every week. He wrote it on the patio with sidewalk chalk and studied it until it got smudged up by Dooley’s worn-out work boots or washed away by the rain.
     This week’s word was vicissitude, but he hadn’t been able to write it on the patio yet because of the rain.

     vicissitude: noun; a change of circumstances,
     typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant
     Popeye slouched down in the chair and slapped his bare foot on the floor.
     Slap.
     Slap.
     He looked out the window, wishing that maybe some vicissitude would come along and make this dern rain stop. Even something unwelcome or unpleasant would probably be better than this.
     He watched a fly land on Dooley’s big toe.
     He wrote vicissitude with his finger on the flowered fabric of Velma’s chair.
     He scooped saltine cracker crumbs off the coffee table and tossed them over to Boo, who had settled onto his raggedy quilt by the woodstove.
     The hands of the clock over the couch jerked noisily.
     Tick. Tick. Tick.
     Around and around.
     Tick. Tick. Tick.
     Popeye was beginning to hate that clock. He was sick to high heaven of watching it turn minutes into hours and hours into days.
     Every day the same.
     So what if the rain stopped? Popeye thought.
     It would still be boring.
     It would always be boring in Fayette, South Carolina.
     Every day would always be the same.
     Popeye was certain about that.
     But Popeye was wrong.
     Because that very day, that day with the rain dripping out of the heart-shaped stain on the ceiling and that fly sitting there on Dooley’s big toe, things changed.
     Elvis came to town.
 

Excerpted from The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O’Connor.
Copyright © 2009 by Barbara O’Connor.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.