Growing up, Carl just wanted to be accepted as middle class. Years later he heard the term hard scrabble. It defined the subsistent existence of getting by, but for Carl it always meant more: the tough climb required to get anywhere. Scrabbling perfectly defined the undignified, difficult activity. It might not be a proper verb in the outside world, but in the one where Carl lived scrabbling was very much a real activity. To scrabble had nothing to do with a board game and everything to do with surviving the harder rules of the real world.
Everything about his family was poor; their upstate area had rocky soil for anyone trying to farm, and a rocky climate for manufacturing, business, or trade. It was a hard climate for everything to do with life, actually. The sense of security that anyone who lived there could hope to establish was a rocky one at best.
When Carl was five years old he went to the single market still left in town and stole a Mars© candy bar. His mother found the empty candy wrapper where Carl had shoved it underneath the blankets of his bed. She frowned as she pushed wispy hair back into the plastic hair clip. “What’s this?”
Carl pretended he didn’t hear her or see the crumpled paper she held, hoping the confrontation would simply go away.
This was when his mother realized the problem was greater than her son eating in bed. “You have fifteen minutes to tell me,” she informed him before she turned her back on Carl and went to do the ironing. But her son stayed silent.
Mrs. Penderson didn’t believe in corporal punishment, but half an hour later she smacked Carl with a ruler as punishment for stealing. While she hit him, she explained the why of the beating. “You think anybody around here has enough extra for you to take it from them? Or that store owner’s little kids think it’s okay that you get something for free from the store and they don’t? Well, do you?”
Carl simply gritted his teeth as he cried until the punishment was over. When she was done, his mother sat abruptly in the living room’s one easy chair and pulled Carl up onto her lap. “Honey, someday you’ll be big and smart enough to get all this stuff. But you have to wait until that day, do you understand?”
Carl didn’t particularly, but he nodded his head anyway, because neither of his parents ever talked to him in such an adult fashion. The seriousness in her voice surprised him in a way the punishment had not.
“There are those on the top, and everybody who’s below them,” she instructed. “If you get to the top you can call the shots. In the meantime, you keep your eyes open for what’s going to be yours, do you understand?”
Again she asked an unanswerable question. Carl wasn’t sure what the proper response might be, neither then nor later.
NOTES: – from my short story “Carl Possessed” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. © Jadi Campbell 2012. Go to following link to order my books: https://www.amazon.com/author/jadicampbell