I grew up in West Virginia, and it’s my belief that our small towns, hollers, and “wide spots in the road” contain more characters than most.
Maybe I’m naïve but I’ve never met anyone, even in Los Angeles, who could compare to Frank Wallace, the one-armed taxi driver who drove the only taxi in our one-stoplight town. Added to this was his red-nosed alcoholism. That probably makes him the only alcoholic one-armed, lone taxi driver in a one-stoplight town who ever lived.
And he’s all mine. Bumping around in my brain, vying for a spot in my fiction.
He blows his horn as furiously as he once did at dogs and children, while the housewife in the back seat clutches her groceries in alarm. Oranges roll between her feet, but she doesn’t criticize his driving.
Frank takes abuse, but not from the wife who left him. Nor is it the pain from his phantom limb. The taunts come from us kids. We call ourselves “the townies”. Some of us are related. On a good day, we number as many as ten.
He drives around our quiet town with a bad muffler, the stump of his arm resting out the window, the pinned-back sleeve fluttering in the wind. He’s going to the meat market on West Main or the Harshbarger Mills Grocery. Worse yet, someone has needed a ride to a circle meeting.
No one dared called him “Stubby” when we thought he’d lost his arm in the war. Veterans were revered in our town. We had assemblies with speakers on Flag Day in front of the town hall. Joey Fellure’s grandfather had been a prisoner of war, and though he sat on his front porch in a three- piece suit wearing a hat both winter and summer, we all called him “sir.” We afforded Frank the same courtesy until we learned the truth.
He wasn’t a veteran.
He hadn’t lost his arm in the war.
The truth was, according to Uncle George, not my uncle but somebody’s, that a rattlesnake had bit him.
During one of the times he’d been trying to hold his marriage together, Frank didn’t keep any liquor in the house. He kept it in the woodpile behind the vacant rental next door. One night, he’d stepped out to take a nip, reached into the wood, and a rattlesnake had bit him.
He was lucky the doctors had been able to save his arm. He was lucky to be alive.
There was a full minute of silence after Uncle George finished because we were all thinking the same thing: we wouldn’t get in trouble for taunting Frank Wallace.
“Hey, Stubby, step on the gas!”
“Rattlesnake meat is good to eat!”
“Hey, Stubs, Stub-man!”
The day one of the bigger boys (this time a cousin) threw a rock at his car, he shouted out the window, “You summa bitch, leave me alone! I’m going run you down. All of you. You little summa bitches!”
Summabitch. We had another name to use. Not often and not loudly. Sometimes, our mother were out, hanging wash.
I don’t know how many years this went on. Most of us gave it up by Junior High, and if younger voices replaced us, their voices were faint. Frank Wallace was an old joke.
But at night, when I mull over my characters, Frank Wallace always bullies his way forward. “Please don’t feature me as comic relief.” I have no idea where he learned this term. “I’m a man, ya know?”