When you live in a small town, everyone knows everyone’s business. I spent half my senior year grounded thanks to gossipy townsfolk, all too happy to tell my parents they’d seen my car at Brad Keddy’s house when I was supposed to be at the library. And when my parents learned that Melanie Schofield threw a party when her family was out of town, culminating with a call to the RCMP and a kitchen stove on the front lawn, I got grounded. I didn’t go to the party, but I was punished for “probably thinking about it.”
During my middle school years, I was forever being told to stay away from the Nicholson boys. This was, of course, because my parents had a way of smelling trouble before it even got started. The Nicholson boys lived in a dilapidated yellow house up on the hill behind ours. As far as I could tell, they were the luckiest kids on the planet as it seemed they had no parents, and were allowed to do anything they wanted. Dwayne and Eugene Nicholson were wild cousins who rode their bikes at high speed around the neighbourhood, throwing stuff and picking fights – two of the things that scared me most about boys.
Eugene Nicholson was lean and muscular, had a head of glorious feathered blonde hair, and was the only boy I knew who smoked and said the f-word. Who had muscles in the 5th grade? Eugene Nicholson, that’s who. Dwayne Nicholson was less gifted in the looks department – oafish and disheveled, his podgy physique was topped with some of the greasiest, jet black hair I’d ever seen. The Nicholson boys were two grades ahead of me in school, and I didn’t dare speak to either of them – mostly because I’d seen what they’d do to you if you said something they didn’t like. It never occurred to me to ask why Dwayne lived with Eugene’s family. They weren’t brothers after all.
One autumn afternoon, I saw Dwayne Nicholson pushing a billy cart up the street that bordered my yard, and I quickly hid behind a tree, pretending to be very involved with the study of bark. The sound of the rattling cart grew louder and louder as he neared my yard, and then suddenly stopped. I held my breath and continued to analyze the woody epidermis of the tree until Dwayne came into my field of vision. He was standing right beside me.
“Here,” he said. “I made this. I mean, I made it for you.” He knelt down and pushed the cart toward me. “It’s not big, because you’re real small and stuff.”
Before me sat a tiny wooden rig framed over four rickety wheels, complete with a steering column that didn’t steer, and some crudely painted flames on the sides. (I later learned that the wagon was built entirely from pickets stolen from fences around the neighbourhood.)
“Thank you.” I said. They were the first words I’d ever been brave enough to say him, and I prayed they were the right ones.
“Yah, it’s nuthin’.” Dwayne kicked some dirt with his sneaker. But I knew it was something. I knew that Dwayne didn’t have much of anything, and he’d just given some of it to me. Well, Dwayne and my neighbours.
“Anyways, I gotta go,” Dwayne said, as he turned and ran back up the street. He met up with Eugene in front of the tenement housing located next to the Anglican church. Eugene greeted Dwayne with a hard punch to the arm and then put him in a head lock before pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. I watched them duck behind the church to smoke.
My best friend, Sherrie Isaac, lived a couple of streets over from me, and her parents were equally leery of the Nicholson boys. So when Sherrie’s little brother, Isaac, asked if he could play at Tyler’s house, the answer was always no. Because Tyler was the youngest of the Nicholson boys, all of six years old, and the Nicholson boys were trouble.
Isaac was persistent. He liked Tyler. Tyler was always doing fun stuff like shooting BB guns, burning stuff in the backyard, and chasing the neigbourhood cats. And after a few weeks of hounding, Mrs. Isaac relented, for she came to realize that her reluctance to allow Isaac to visit Tyler might have been based solely on the appearance of his house, and the reputation of his older brother, Eugene. And maybe she felt bad about naming her only son Isaac Isaac.
So off he went one afternoon, to play at Tyler’s house. And when Isaac returned a few hours later, hair rumpled, and covered in dirt, Mrs. Isaac asked how things had gone.
“It was great!” Isaac was beaming.
“What did you do?” Mrs. Isaac asked, trying to sound breezy and carefree.
“First, we rode our bikes in the church parking lot.”
“That’s fun,” said Mrs. Isaac. The Nicholson house overlooked the church, and it would be easy for an adult to supervise the boys from any one of the front windows.
“And then Eugene and Dwayne built us a fort.”
“Oh, wow!” Mrs. Isaac was genuinely impressed.
“And then they taught us how to hit!” Isaac swung an arm out in front of his body.
Here we go, thought Mrs. Isaac. “Eugene and Dwayne taught you how to hit?”
“Yah! Like in the big leagues!” Isaac ran a loop around the kitchen.
Baseball, of course. Why had she jumped to conclusions, Mrs. Isaac wondered.
“And his mother was there?” asked Mrs. Isaac.
“Oh, yes! She was there! And she let us play with the chickens!”
Mrs. Isaac paused, trying to picture the Nicholson’s house. “In the yard?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” Isaac said. “In the house.”
“One of the chickens ran into the house?” Mrs. Isaac remained hopeful.
“No. They live in the house! And they’re getting a goat! It’s going to live in the house too! And next week they’re gunna kill one of the chickens because Dwayne’s dad is getting out of a big house and they are having a party. They told me I could help!”
“Help… kill the chicken?” Mrs. Isaac tried to look more enthusiastic than horrified.
“YES!” Isaac squealed. “Dwayne says sometimes when you chop the head off a chicken, it will run around without its head!”
“Okay, Isaac! Okay!” Mrs. Isaac waved her arms in the air, signalling she’d heard enough. She was already regretting her choice of pineapple chicken for dinner. “I’ll have to think about it, sweetheart. I believe your Aunt Mary is coming for a visit that day. The day Dwayne’s father is being… released.”
Isaac shrugged and happily moved on. He’d won a battle and had the time of his life, so who was he to complain?
Last I heard, the Nicholson boys – Dwayne, Eugene, and Tyler – had all served time. The year after Tyler graduated high school, the trio hid themselves in the local Home Hardware when it closed for the night, and used the store’s tools to break into the safe. They also used the store’s inventory of jackhammers to bust through an exterior wall when making their escape, so as not to trip any alarms. Unfortunately, they hadn’t worn disguises, and were captured on the store’s video cameras as they trashed the place. They were apprehended the next day at the KFC, sharing a family-sized bucket of chicken.