The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 13, 2013

THE ESSAY by Robin Yocum

Your name is Hickam. That's synonymous with poor, ignorant, trouble, dirty, drunk, lazy, thieving, no-good, arsonist and jailbird. You live on the poorest road in the poorest county in the state. Girls either won't have anything to do with you or their fathers make sure you don't have anything to do with them. Your dad is an abusive drunk and one brother takes after him. Your other brother is doing nine years for burglary and arson. You think your mom is okay but you'll find out you don't know her as well as you think you do. You're a pretty good high school football player but that's all you've got going for you. You barely passed your junior English class. In fact you only got the D because the teacher believed you when you said you were committed to improving during your senior year. So when you win the school essay contest, it's pretty easy for even your best (and only) friend, Polio Baughman, to believe you cheated. Never mind the teachers, principal, other students and their parents, and the sponsor of the contest. They want to see you stripped of the award they are sure you didn't earn. Only you didn't cheat. It turns out you have a gift. But who's going to believe you? Who's going to believe IN you?

THE ESSAY, Robin Yocum's bootstrapping, 1970s coming-of-age tale about the obstacles faced by Jimmy Lee Hickam in his climb out of ignorance and poverty, rings true because the details are true: junkers on blocks in the front yard; slag heaps that smolder a sulfuric stench near homes; homes in disrepair; the father who would steal from his children; the mother who is so focused on dealing with the abuse she faces that she cannot properly care for her children or even take much interest in them; the community prejudice against the children of the truly poor that helps keep them 'in their place.' Yocum describes it all in vivid prose that lacks sentimentality and yet still manages to make the eyes water on occasion.

If Jimmy's rise to success -- and we're not talking about him becoming a millionaire tycoon; just getting a career rather than a job, that's all -- feels a tad predictable, it is no less welcome for all that. And the characterizations, not only of Jimmy but of his ex-con brother, Edgel, and his English teacher, Miss Singletary (my heroine as well as Jimmy's), more than make up for knowing that Jimmy will at last make good. Edgel is such a fine, well-rounded character that he really deserves to have a "bad boy makes good" story of his own. And the redoubtable Miss Singletary has a cat-o-nine-tails for a tongue, and readily wields it against those peers of hers who would happily let one more Hickam child slide into ignominy. She will remind every reader of at least one relentless, passionate educator in his/her life. (In my case, Miss Cora "Shotgun" Gibbs, principal at First Avenue Elementary in the late 1960's.)

In case you hadn't guessed by now, THE ESSAY is not strictly a crime novel, though crimes do occur in the story. The only real crime will be if you miss reading this poignant, funny and uplifting story. Here's an excerpt in which Jimmy describes his best friend:

Polio Baughman was my best friend, though it was a position he held by default.

I met Polio when we were both six years old and waiting for the bus to take us to school for the first day of first grade. The Baughmans had just moved to a small one-story shanty on Red Dog Road and I was surprised to see this new kid standing at the bus stop. He was a skinny, malnourished little guy who smelled like a musty basement. He had a crop of unruly blond hair, untied shoes, and a perpetual line of snot running from his nose to his mouth. His real name was Kirby, but as a young boy he was so thin and bony that the kids gave him the nickname of Polio, which, like so many unfortunate nicknames, stuck. By junior high, even the teachers called him Polio.

Polio and I were the only two doggers in the first-grade class at Zaleski Elementary School. Thus, we rode the bus together, sat beside each other in the slow reading group and, since the other kids had been forewarned to keep their distance from us doggers, pretended to be army commandos together during recess. Red Dog Road was segregated from the rest of Vinton County by prejudice, barren hills, and miles of bad country lanes. Consequently, Polio was my only friend. He spent countless hours at my house, coughing, swiping his snotty nose with his forearm, and looking for something to cram into his pocket.

Polio didn't have another friend in the world, yet he would steal from me at every opportunity. If there were a few pennies on my dresser when he got to the house, they would be gone when he left. Over the years I trudged over to Polio's house to retrieve money, toys, the pocketknife my grandfather Joachim had given me, and three arrowheads that I had found on the ridge behind our house. Twice, I had to grind his face in the dirt and threaten him with a beating if he didn't return stolen toys, but mostly he just gave them up.

"Why do you steal like that?" I asked him once.

"'Cause you got stuff and I don't," he responded.

"But that doesn't make it right, Polio. You don't steal, especially from your friends. My brother Edgel's like that, always stealin', and he's in prison now."

Polio just shrugged.

Like most doggers, Polio was a survivor. He was the middle one of five kids, and even by the standards of Red Dog Road, they were poor. They had running water, but no indoor toilets. Polio did his business in a fetid outhouse that was the only thing on Red Dog Road that smelled worse than the dump, or he simply unhitched his pants and pissed in the yard. His father was a silent, grease-stained man who had chewing tobacco stains caked to the corners of his mouth and a growth on top of his forehead the size of a lemon. He worked in the junkyard outside of Zaleski. Every day, Polio's mother wore the same faded blue, sleeveless housecoat that revealed a mass of gray armpit hair.

I understood this and that is why I tolerated Polio's thievery. He was the only kid my age within miles and the only one whose parents didn't mind having a Hickam in their yard. My Grandpa Joachim had an old billy goat on his farm that would butt you the second you turned your back on him. You had to be careful and you couldn't take your eye off him. Dealing with Polio was no different from dealing with that old billy goat. If I was careless enough to leave something where Polio could get his hands on it, shame on me, because I knew he would steal it. It's just what he did.

THE ESSAY by Robin Yocum
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing (October 9, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1611457661
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611457667
  • Available for Kindle and Nook