Seven-sided son of a bitch — a one-eyed person: as he has a right side and a left side, a front side and a back side, an inside and an outside, and a blind side.
John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present Vol. VI (1896).
PART ONE: BLINDSIDED
Hep Thomas was a seven-sided son of a bitch. He always had been for as long as anyone cared to remember. He never liked to talk about it, but like ghosts haunting the corners of history, they emerged from time to time to walk the earth. Hep’s hometown of Bardsville, Mississippi, was haunted that way. Spirits lurked there, as they did in every southern foothill or floodplain, muttering in the same breath of hope and ruin. The best that anyone could claim was that their eyes were open to them.
James Hepburn Thomas’s eyes—both of them—opened at birth just as those of all the other children in his neighborhood had done. From birth to the time he lost his left eye, he kept them open and looking for trouble into which he might get himself. When he was only four or five, he would pick up a snake by the tail, squash a black widow spider with his bare heel, or jump into the swirling, opaque pools of Dwyer’s Creek without checking for depth. Even before he earned his seventh side, he had been a hell-raiser, but he aimed his mischief outward at the greater world against which he battered himself. When it came to people, Hep was guarded.
He was friendly with the other boys in The Meadows, the golf and tennis community where his family lived, but he preferred to wander on his own beyond the gates of his development to find adventure. The older kids picked on him and thought him odd, but this was a minor inconvenience for Hep who could disappear into the pines for hours, up into the hills behind The Meadows. There, away from the tennis courts and fairways, he would track deer and spot small game and build forts of bent branches as men did in survival stories. He would take his bicycle as far up the paths as they led, where the developers had halted their progress, to where the land was not yet paved nor even cleared. There he would stash his black Mongoose bicycle in the hollow beneath a fallen tree and then proceed through dense brush on foot, stepping over needles, ducking under branches, until he came to the Gully, as he called it. It was an eroded bit of land, no more than four feet across and six deep, over which Hep had laid branches thick with pine until they made a roof that looked exactly like the forest floor. Even within ten feet of his sanctuary, the keenest eyes could not spot it. At greater distances, the trees were too thick to see anything.
It was to the Gully that Hep retreated when he did not want to cross paths with Curtis Blount who taunted Hep at any opportunity. Curtis was a few years older than Hep and much bigger. Once he had taken a disliking to Hep, he targeted him without relenting. When Hep was eight, he was riding through the neighborhood alone. Curtis and his group of older boys spotted him.
“Hey, Hep!” Curtis shouted. Hep knew the voice and ignored him. “Hep!” he shouted again. Hep turned and looked at him as he cruised past Curtis’s yard, but he made no sign that he would stop. “You mind me when I’m talking to you, boy!” Curtis called as he and his crew jumped onto their own bikes. Hep picked up his speed and headed for the forest path, the other boys just a hundred yards behind him. He lifted his bike over the ditch beside the road and mounted it again as he dashed up the path into the woods. Curtis and the others closed the distance shouting after him.
When Hep reached the fallen tree, he did not have time to conceal his bike, so he left it on the path and disappeared into the brush. In seconds he was too far into the dense growth for Curtis to see him, and the sounds of their pursuit died away, but Hep heard Curtis calling after him.
“We got ’cher bike, queer!” he bellowed. “You want it back, you gotta come to my house and get it.”
Hep charged deep into the woods to his Gully fort. There he stayed for hours until the sun began to drop as low as his spirits. With a sinking sense of shame, he knew he had to walk home. He took the long way back, along Berwick Circle, to avoid Curtis’s house, and he came through two backyards to reach his own. It was nearly dinner time, and he smelled his mama’s cooking from the garage. Kicking off his muddy shoes, he slipped into the house.
“Wash your hands, James,” Amelia Thomas, called from the kitchen. She never called her son Hep. “Supper’s on soon, and Daddy’ll be home in a minute.”
Hep did as his mother told him and took a seat at the table. The smell of burgers—Hep’s favorite meal—rose through the whole house, but Hep was thinking only of his bike and how he was going to explain the situation to his father. He would need to get it back somehow.
When Hep heard the garage door open, his stomach lurched. Jim Thomas came in through the living room and stood his briefcase on the floor. He kissed his wife and ruffled Hep’s hair.
“You all right, son?” he asked Hep.
“You don’t look it.”
“Just tired, I guess.”
“You look like you’re fixin’ to cry.”
“I noticed your bike wasn’t in the garage,” Jim said.
“You leave it out back again?”
Hep felt the tears well up, blurring the edges of his vision.
“Out with it, son.”
Hep looked to his mother for support. She stood looking at him.
“It’s best just to say it, sugar,” she said. “Whatever it is.”
He burst forth with his tears and the story in one unpunctuated flurry so that it was a long time before his parents could make sense of the details. Hep had to be sent again to the bathroom, this time to splash cold water on his face. His parents were waiting for him when he returned.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Hep said as he sat down to his burger.
“Nothing to be sorry about, son,” Jim said. “You had your bike stolen. We’ll go get it back after supper. Now let’s say the blessing and eat.”
Hep ate quietly while his parents talked about the one thing and another adults talked about at the table. His father had understood about the incident, but Hep’s face still burned with the memory of it.
When the meal was over, Jim stood up and asked if Hep would like to come with him to retrieve the bike.
“No sir,” Hep said.
“It might do you some good to come along.”
“I want to stay with Mama.”
“Why’d you ditch it, anyway?” his father asked him. Hep looked nervous.
“Well,” the boy began, “you always say don’t ever get so attached to something you can’t let it go when the time comes.”
“I’m not sure I meant for you to ditch your bike,” his father said. He sighed and rubbed the boy’s head again. “I’ll be right back.”
Jim left, and Hep went to his room and lay on his bed. He stared up at the stippled ceiling. It always reminded Hep of a giant sea of meringue that had been dabbed into peaks with an enormous spatula. It made him think of dessert, which he wouldn’t get because he had not finished his supper.
Lying on the bed, Hep felt the indignity of his loss again. Curtis’s intimidations could be terrifying in the moment, but it was the humiliation on reflection that provoked true misery. It made his stomach turn and his heart flutter, and it flushed his cheeks so that he thought he looked like a girl.
When his father returned, Hep was still staring at the ceiling.
“I got it back,” his father said.
“Curtis didn’t mean anything by it, Hep,” Jim said. “He was just being a boy. Boys do stupid stuff to each other when they’re not thinking.”
“I know how you could make sure he doesn’t do it again, though.”
“Show him you’re not afraid.”
Hep furrowed his brow, torn between opposing ideas. He trusted in his father’s wisdom, but how could he show he was not afraid when he so obviously was.
“How do I do that?” Hep asked.
“Stand up to him.”
“He’s two years older.”
“Yes, he is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself.”
His father took a breath and sat down on the bed beside Hep. He looked into the boy’s eyes and gave him a playful jab.
“Take one on the chin, and he’ll respect you for it.”
Hep sighed and turned away.
“I know it’s scary, but it’ll wake something in you,” his father said.
Hep turned back to look at him.
“What’ll it wake?” he asked.
“Fire is one of man’s oldest tools,” Jim said. “There’s fire within and without. There’s a fire in every man that burns hot when you give it fuel. And it can be put out too. Curtis’s fire is hot right now. He’s not afraid of anyone ‘cause he’s the biggest kid on the block. Show him you’re not afraid, and you’ll take that fire from him and let it burn for yourself.”
Hep sat up and thought for a moment.
“Does it hurt getting punched?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” Hep’s father admitted. “But sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it does and you don’t care. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I guess it’s like that fire burns away the pain, and there you are just knowing—and everybody else knowing—that you’ve stood up for yourself and that you’re a man who won’t be pushed around.”
He saw the fear still on his son’s face.
“Look, I know you’re only eight, but—”
“Nine in December.”
“Right. I know you’re almost nine, and Curtis is bigger, but he can’t do more than hit you. He’s not the devil, Hep. He’s just a bully. Bullies need to be taken down a peg.”
“But I can’t fight him back and win.”
“You don’t have to,” said Jim. “You just have to stand up one time, and he’ll leave you alone. I promise. I’ve known his kind my whole life. There’s nothing in it for him if you’re brave.”
“But what if I’m still scared?” asked Hep.
“Well, you will be,” Jim said. “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you do what you have to, even though you’re scared. Only you can’t let him know that. Just act like he’s one of them snakes you like to handle. Remember the first time you picked up a garter snake? You were scared then, weren’t you?”
“But not as scared as Mama was when she found it in her azaleas, right?”
“And what’d you do with it for her?”
“Took it to the back and hit it with a shovel.”
“And how’d you feel after?”
“Well it’s the same thing.”
“All right,” Hep said, but he did not feel all right.
“All right,” Jim said. “Now come on out and watch some TV with me and Mama.”
That was Hep in a nutshell. But if he was a complicated rascal before he lost his eye, then he was a genuine son of a bitch afterward.
The day it happened was less than a week later. Hep left his corner house on Landford and Willoughby and followed the sounds of the neighborhood kids down the hill. He heard them shouting in their raucous way, so he knew there must be some mischief worth exploring. From the edge of his yard he saw them—younger ones, near his age—shouting from the street up an incline into an empty lot that had been cleared for construction. He followed it to see what was happening. The closer he got, the more voices he could distinguish, and when he arrived, he discovered he was on the losing end of a game of King of the Hill that had gone wrong. Instead of the usual arrangement of one boy trying to take his place as King by keeping the others from mounting the hill, the game had turned into a two-sided battle with the bigger kids at the top chucking dirt clods down upon the younger ones, who dodged them as they smashed against the pavement below, spraying clay and rocks in starburst patterns on the blacktop. Curtis was one of them at the top, along with Kent Biggs, Trip Dolan, and a few others from fourth and fifth grade
The hill was too steep to climb while dodging missiles, so there was no way the younger kids could take the hill. They decided instead to chuck the broken pieces of the dirt clods back up at their opponents who had gravity on their side and were in no danger of ever really being hit. So the game went. When Hep joined in, he saw the inherent injustice of it all, and it made his ears hot. He thought it must have been the fire in him.
It was time to show Curtis that fire. Hep pictured his father’s face and knew how proud he would be of Hep for standing up for what was right. His heart pounded as he stepped forward.
“Y’all are just a bunch of sissies!” he shouted up at them.
“They’re gonna whoop you for that, Hep,” Brady Fowler said behind him.
“They have to come down here first,” said Hep, “and when they do, we’ll bean ‘em with these dirt clods.” As he spoke, a hail of red dirt came rattling down around Hep who held his ground as they smashed into the asphalt. Brady jumped back, but Hep faced his assailants with a contemptuous scowl.
“Come on, sissies!” he called again to them again.
“Watch who you’re callin’ sissies, boy,” yelled Curtis. “I’ll teach you to respect your elders.”
“You gotta catch me first, sissy.”
That was enough for Curtis. He charged down the hill at Hep with a fury mounting in him with each step. Hep watched him coming, knowing he would likely take a licking, but somehow also knowing that if he ran from it, then the little kids would never be the Kings of that hill until they took it from the next bunch coming up in years. That did not seem like a victory at all, to throw dirt clods at littler kids from high up like that. There was victory in a licking if you could take it, as his father said, so he braced himself for Curtis’s advance, hoping at least to get in a few shots before he went down.
But Curtis never hit him. Curtis never even reached him. What reached him was the dirt clod Kent Biggs had chucked in a high, curving arc before Curtis ever left his post atop the hill. Hep never saw it coming, focused as he was on Curtis. It came down with all its four-pound malice from above Hep’s head and slammed into his open left eye, knocking him to the pavement, out cold.
He woke up to his mother’s voice in his head, but it was competing with the pain that seared there. She was calling his name over and over. “James!” she called him. Hep let out a strained moan as his only reply, but that was enough for her. He felt her lift him. Hep’s brain whirled, disoriented, and he forgot for a moment about the pain. He tried to piece together what had happened, but he could not make the details fit. It had to have been several minutes he was out, but all reckoning of time had abandoned him. At some point he felt himself lying in the cool of the empty bathtub with the icy shock of water running on his face.
“You have to let me wash it out, James,” his mother commanded but with the tender forcefulness that is the trademark of mothers. He tried to comply, but the entire left side of his head burned, and it felt as if the dirt clod had buried itself in his brain.
“James, you have to let me, sugar.”
He tried to relax, but he was overrun by the rival tempests of the burn of the injury and the chill of the water. He wailed as his only helpless recourse.
“James, baby, let Mama wash it.”
He breathed in and braced himself and let his mother touch the wound. She tried to open his eye to wash out the filth and clay and blood inside it, but as soon as the water penetrated the gap between his eyelids, he felt the blistering pain again. He flailed and hollered and kicked at the sides of the bathtub until she determined that she had to take him to the emergency room.
What happened there was a blur of sounds and smells, punctuated by episodes of shooting pain that made him scream. At some point, they must have sedated him because he did not remember the procedure.
The doctor said that nothing could be done to save the eye. It had taken too much damage—ruptured cornea, detached retina, lacerations, foreign bodies. Hep would never see out of that eye again. To prevent against infection, they removed it. Hep woke in recovery with tape pulling at the hairs near his temple. His mother was sitting by his side.
“I can’t see right.”