My first friend in Texas was Charles.
He lived on Wilburn Avenue, which was funny because he loved to set things on fire.
Charles had a rattail. The rattail is not really a hairstyle. It is more like a method of making your hair into an accessory. You just let a tassel of hair on your neck grow and grow. It is optional to tie up the rattail with rubber bands.
My mom would not let me grow a rattail, but sometimes I would try to fashion one out of the hair that was on my neck, twisting it into a rattail shape with spit or some hand soap.
I would see Charles walking ahead of me in the lunch line and feel inadequate about myself.
We became friends like this: I said, “Your rattail is stunning.”
While we waited for our moms to pick us up from our after school program, he showed me the cigarette lighters he carried in his backpack. Most of them were out of fuel, but the green one wasn’t.
My mother wouldn’t let me have a rattail because it was trashy.
Again we were eating nuggets. I liked to take things out of the fridge and make dipping sauces. I thought I was on to something with Mustard + Mayonnaise.
I said, “What’s trashy?”
Mom said, “Oh I shouldn’t have said that.”
I said, “Did you try my sauce?”
She said, “Yes. It was very creative.”
If you have a rattail, the worst noise in the world to you is the noise of scissors.
On Sunday, Charles listed all the horrible things he was going to do to whoever cut off his rattail.
I said, “How did you think up all of those things?” Some of them were very awful.
He said, “You can’t tell anyone, but my great grandpa was a nazi.”
I took a bite of Push Pop. Even though Charles’s house smelled like burnt macaroni, his mom bought orange Push Pop ice creams. He could have one every day after school. When I saw them in the store, my mom said we couldn’t afford Push Pops, and I thought of Charles. I felt like we were richer than him.
This all confused me. How rich was I?
I swallowed and said, “You can’t tell anyone either, but I’ve been thinking my great grandpa was probably a nazi too.”
“That’s an amazing coincidence,” Charles said. “My last name is Schmidt. It is a very common nazi name.”
“Oh. I didn’t know there were nazi names.”
“Definitely. Most German names are nazi names.”
That night I was telling my mom about what happened in school. I told her about fractions and an amazing book called The Diary of Anne Frank, and I asked my mom, “Do you think I had a great grandpa who was a nazi?”
She said, “What?”
I said, “It matches up, the dates, so that my great grandpa could have been a nazi.”
She looked at the ceiling and did math in her head.
She said, “It’s possible I guess.”
At school, Charles wanted my help beating up the boy who cut off his rattail.
The boy was Brian Cuddy. The boy was Cruddy Cuddy.
I said I would help even though I was a suck-ass fighter.
Charles said, “You just have to have my back.”
I said, “I can have your back. I can kick good too. I can do the kicks.”
“Definitely,” Charles said, “do the kicks.”
We jumped Cruddy Cuddy after school. I kicked him twice in the back, but Charles did most of the work. Cruddy Cuddy still had Charles’s rattail in his pocket. He had been touching girls with it to give them AIDS.
We did not discuss why we set the playground on fire. It was during after school program. Charles just said to bring a bunch of papers from my desk. He would do the rest.
I knew it had something to do with Cruddy Cuddy. It made Charles feel good to whoop him even though he went to in-school suspension, but the feeling wasn’t enough. A rattail takes months to grow.
It was Aunt Lynette’s day to pick me up, which was good because I could change out of my playground-burning clothes.
As soon as my mom got home she said, “Remember last night when you asked if it was possible that your great grandpa was a nazi and I said it was possible?”
“Yes,” I said. I was on the floor in my pajamas, doing some drawings.
She said, “It is not possible.” She turned on the oven and took a box of lasagna out of the freezer. She tore it open and slid the lasagna onto a pan.
The oven was suddenly amazing. It was right there in our house.
“John, look at me.”
I looked up.
She said, “You are not related to Nazis, okay?”
She asked, “Why do you smell like fire?”
From then on, I was forbidden to be friends with Charles, which was probably good because he was suspended for Destruction of School Property. Then he went to Alternative School for fighting. Then he went to live with his grandma in Oklahoma, but I didn’t forget him.
It was a long time later when my mom asked me to cut her hair in the back where she couldn’t see. All I had to do was cut straight across. To show me how much to cut, she held up fingers for pinching. I thought about Charles while I cut. I hoped his grandma let him grow his rattail out. It was important to him.
With my mom’s hair being wavy like mine, it was hard to see it some days, but I knew it was there, her baby rattail, just starting to grow.
Meanwhile, I had begun to doubt my nazi heritage. It was difficult to accept, but the nazis were the worst bad guys ever. I knew deep down I did not have what it took to be a nazi. They were the best at the worst thing to be good at, and even though it made me sad for myself, I was glad for Charles that he had something.
Dan Townsend’s stories have appeared recently in SmokeLong Quarterly and Dogzplot. He lives in Alabama, where it is football season!