You need to know a little about me before you hear all the rest of the things I’m going to tell you about my life. Otherwise how will you know enough to understand what matters and where it all fits and how everything goes?
My name is Carl Hemesvedt. Don’t even try the last name. I’m not quite certain myself how it should be pronounced. My first name came from my mother, who passed away when I was six from some kind of disease mixed with a bunch of complications, which is how my dad puts it. She was wonderful, even if I only have foggy memories. My father says she was the best, but talking about her makes him remember she’s gone and it hurts. So we hardly ever talk about her. Anyway, my mother called me Carley, which would be all right except it makes people think of a woman singer from before I was born, and I’m a boy who can’t sing a hoot, so just call me Carl.
So I’m Carl and I can’t sing and my age is just at the line between twelve and thirteen and I look like any other twelve-to-thirteen-year-old boy—here and there a pimple; hair that isn’t cool; glasses so I don’t squint; a body that seems to belong to some other person who doesn’t like me very much.
In addition, I’m not good at sports (which I don’t even try anymore); I’m average to poor at school (which I sometimes like, sometimes don’t); I’ve got no brothers or sisters so it’s just me trying to make sense of my father (more on that later); and finally, according to my dad and the reason for this book: I’m rich.
Only I’m not.
Not even close.
But that’s not how my dad sees it.
First week of my summer vacation, and we were sitting on the edge of a dumpster in back of the grocery store that’s in the mall, sitting up on the edge looking down, smack in the middle of approximately a hundred and thirty-two thousand flies, just sitting there looking for stuff to salvage because my dad says stores throw away a lot of perfectly good food, when he suddenly announced:
“You know, we have a rich life.”
Really, he said that.
As we were dumpster diving for food.
And if that’s not crazy enough, here’s how we live: We have a small trailer outside of town down along the river on five acres of dirt and mud, with four—you can come count them if you want—trees. Not big trees, no shade really, just four skinny trees next to a semi-scroungy trailer. There’s electricity and a television, which my father never watches, and we can get internet connection, which my father never uses, but only by swiping the Wi-Fi signal from a nearby warehouse for a moving and storage company, and we have a shed that houses two pigs and eleven or twelve or fifteen or four chickens. The count varies from day to day because sometimes a few of the chickens—the smart ones—take it on themselves to leave. The not-so-smart chickens not only come back (I don’t know why), but every now and then, they’ll bring a new chicken with them. I don’t have a clue where they get the new ones since we are surrounded by—in addition to the previously mentioned warehouse—a plastic shopping bag manufacturer, a ready-mix concrete supplier, a sheriff’s impound lot, a school bus depot, an office furniture wholesaler, a shipping transfer station, and a garage for city garbage trucks. There are no neighbors with chickens, or even houses with people, for that matter.
Add to the picture you’re forming of where we live—our rich-life kind of place—a rebuilt, recycled, rehabbed 1951 Chevy half-ton pickup made up mostly of dents so deep you can see little puddles here and there in the hood after a rain (a truck my father says is not only immortal, but an absolute classic), parked in the mud near the trailer, and you get a rough idea of how rich we really are.
The truck has, I kid you not, an antique AM radio with what Dad says are vacuum tubes instead of transistors, so it doesn’t come on right away but has to warm up first. It works, but only seems to get country songs and some crazy fast-talking man whose voice slam-booms loud enough to make your ears bleed as he offers to sell autographed pictures of biblical heroes including Jesus Christ.
Oh, there’s a garden. A huge and extensive garden that we keep alive with the river water pumped by an old sump pump my father repaired—he’s a true marvel at fixing things and making them last (for example: the old truck).
We grow all the vegetables we eat, although sometimes I swear they taste a little like the solvent and chemical runoff that we think are illegally dumped in the river by the nearby businesses. We feed the pigs leftover scraps from our own food, like potato peelings and cuttings from the garden, and stuff from the dumpster in back of the grocery store, and every fall a man comes with a small stock truck and takes away the pigs.
A week later he brings back pork chops and bacon and hams wrapped in white waxed paper with stamped labels. We put the packages in an old rejuvenated freezer (see 1951 Chevy truck, page 6, sump pump, page 7), and after we forget (a little) about the individual personality of the pigs (which is the reason we never name them in the first place), we have meat for a year.
My father says, whether you buy the meat in a store or you raise the livestock yourself, you cause the same end for the pigs, and if you take responsibility for your own meat supply, then at least you know it’s higher quality and you’re not being quite as hypocritical. Same as a tomato you grow yourself. Or eggs from your own chickens. But the whole pig-growing-and-eating process bothers him all the same, and when the truck comes to get our animals, he has to turn away and not watch them leave.
Pooder, who is my best friend and who I see every day even when we don’t have school, says he likes our place better than his (more on that later). His real name is Peter Haskell, but he insists on being called Pooder because there was an old-time actor named Peter Haskell who had a bunch of bit roles on TV shows he can’t remember the name of, and he doesn’t want people to confuse them.
Anyway, Pooder says we—my dad and I—are about three-quarters of an inch from becoming vegans or at least vegetarians because of how we raise our own meat and then feel bad about eating it. Considering that Pooder lives on hot dogs, Slim Jims, and chicken nuggets (which he admits are a sludgy goop extruded—great word, extruded, it means pressure-squirting leftover chicken bits into nugget-shaped molds—and then deep-fried in fat), and has never, literally never, eaten anything that didn’t come in a box or a can or a to-go carton, he thinks vegetarianism is something on the order of a crazy cult religion.
Pooder says if I ever become a full-on health-food fanatic, we’ll still be best friends except that he won’t want to walk too close to me or get sneezed on in case he might catch it.
I’m not offended by that, but I did start to keep a little distance from him in case the extruded-meat-loving thing might be contagious, too. Because I once saw him eat an entire large can of those little gray Vienna sausages with his fingers, then drink the juice even though it says on the side of the can they are made of something called—wait for it—meat by-products, which, my dad says, are lips and eyelids and noses and the skin around other body openings and maybe even roadkill because if you say something as vague as meat by-products, you’re as good as admitting you know that it could be anything. Dad says that in these giant factories they go ahead and feed whatever’s left over around the meat processing plant through a big old grinder and let it hit the extruder and boom, there’s your meat by-products right there.
You never know, Dad says, you just never know what you’re getting from so-called Big Meat.
I don’t want to make anybody sick with talk of industrial-waste-flavored veggies and mystery meat, but I thought you should know about my dad and Pooder and how they think, because they figure into the story we’re working on here.
So you’ve got me, Dad, Pooder, and the chickens, and then, of course, our dog, Carol, who is a rescued pit bull we found limping alongside the road near a part of town where you don’t want to go unless you are looking for trouble.
Carol is all scars from where bad people had forced her into illegal dog fights, but she’s very sweet to us and super protective about anything she thinks belongs to us, including people we’re friendly with, but everything else is just plain toast, and she’s absolute murder to any skunk that comes wandering along the river and makes a run on our chickens. She tears them to shreds and scatters the strips around the yard, and since that happens at least once a week all summer long, she always smells so bad flies won’t even land on her.
Dad loves her, but he also says she sits on our little porch gazing over her world watching and waiting for anything that she perceives as a threat so she can go into attack mode. According to him, she’s a loving, land-based white shark, and if you could hold her up just right and look into her mouth, you’d be able to see straight out her butt. He calls Carol a killing tube who also happens to like sitting on the couch like a person, getting hugged, and watching television, before going to sleep next to you in bed on her back snoring like an old drunk.
What’s not to love, he says.
By now you’ve probably gotten the idea that Dad’s a really nice guy. And you’d be flat-out right.
He’s friendly to everyone he meets and he’s always been good to me, so I can see where it might become confusing to learn that the time came when his way of thinking started to drive me absolutely nuts and I couldn’t stand it or him or the way we lived another minute.
Text copyright © 2021 Gary Paulsen.