I have two unusual cousins — Bessie, who lacks nerve, and Ned, who has plenty of nerve but never does anything right. Since they have always spent a lot of time together, it was probably inevitable that one day they were going to end up in trouble.
Bessie is an unlikely candidate for trouble. She has been the assistant librarian in our small town for 50 years. She has a way of working in the stacks so she always seems to be hidden on the other side, sort of like a squirrel on a tree. I used to tease her as a boy by sneaking back there and peeking around a corner. I think one of the things that has made life so easy for me is the memory of the way she'd smile when she discovered me watching her.
Bessie is afraid of anything she didn't know about when she was a girl. That includes television, supermarkets, the telephone and all machinery. When she needs to go someplace, she relies on Ned to take her, and he is usually happy to oblige. My grandmother always used to say, "Poor Ned can't do anything right, but at least he drives slow."
Ned volunteered once to put Formica on Grandmother's kitchen cabinets. He forgot about the pilot light on the stove, and after he opened a gallon of contact cement a tiny blue flame ran up the vapor trail and set the stuff on fire. Ned picked up the can and hurried out with it into the yard, where a bit of flaming glue slooped onto his dog. The dog thought the whole thing was a game until he caught fire. Then the poor thing ran back into the house and hid under the bed. When it was all over, the dog was fine. He smelled of singed hair for a while, but that was nothing compared with the smell of the burned-up rubber mattress on Ned's bed.
One thing that Ned could do pretty well was gnaw things with his front teeth. I remember that when he was about 12 he gnawed a boat from a stick he found down in the creek. Turned out that the nice soft wood he gnawed the boat from was poison sumac. It was not long before Ned's lips and tongue swole up so bad that they had to take him to Atlanta to see a specialist.
Ned made quite a few such trips. When he was little he stuck a peach pit up his nose and couldn't get it out. On that train ride to Atlanta, he and my aunt found themselves sitting across from another mother with her little boy. The child had an enormous bandage on his head, much bigger than a turban, which didn't stop him from being badder than hell. Finally, when he started crawling over the back of the seat in front of him, his mother whopped him a good one on his rear end.
My aunt, an active social reformer and self-taught medical expert, was compelled to reprimand the woman. She said, "Madam, I hope you know how dangerous even the slightest blow can be to a child with a hematoma of that size."
The woman replied, "Lady, there is nothing at all wrong with my son. He just got his head stuck in his potty, and we are going to Atlanta to have it removed. I put that bandage on to keep people from becoming involved in something that is none of their business."
Ned considered himself a rocket pioneer. He made one rocket big enough to carry a camera. Upon ignition, it hopped off the launching platform and lay on its side fizzling. We all felt relieved. Then it began to squeal and spin around. Finally it took off along the ground and ended up beneath my mother's Volkswagen, where it exploded. It made such a dent in the belly pan that the emergency brake handle wound up waist high, and the front seats tilted outward so much that they gave you a cramp in the hip.
The trouble Bessie and Ned got into started on just another trip to the grocery store. They were driving down the street when they came to the curve by Charles Robinson's house. Ned braked to slow from 15 to 5 miles per hour so that Bessie wouldn't clutch her pocketbook even harder. The pedal went all the way to the floor with no effect. Even though there was only a gentle curve in the road and no traffic at all, Ned did the wrong thing. "Jump, Bessie!" he hollered, and with that he opened his door and dove out on his head.
After Ned bailed out, Bessie remained frozen in her seat. The car jumped the curb and ran through the big pittosporum bushes that border Charles' yard. It passed Charles on his riding lawn mower in his dark glasses and ran into his big fancy metal-flake bass boat, knocking it clean off the trailer onto the garbage cans.
Charles came stomping through the cloud of whiteflies stirred up by the passage of the car through the bushes. By the time he finished examining the destruction of his boat, he had worked himself up into a regular fury. He looked around for somebody to blame. There was only poor old Bessie, still strapped into the passenger seat and clutching her pocketbook. Charles leaned into the car window and roared right into Bessie's ear, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Bessie didn't have the nerve to answer.
Later, in the hospital, Ned said that he had planned to roll himself into a ball (he had read somewhere that rolling yourself into a ball is the proper method for "bailing out" of a car), but he hit his head on the pavement before he could assume the position. It didn't kill him, but he did have to wear a great big bandage on his head (much bigger than a turban) for a long time.