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  • Writer's pictureLezlie Wade

The Coopers

I was on a school field trip to Balls Falls when I decided it would be fun to slide down the side of a steep hill, sans toboggan. As I sped, out of control, all I could think about was what an idiot I was. This idea was soon validated when, close to the bottom and in full tilt, I impaled my left thigh onto a broken tree stump.

My two friends came running to my rescue and then stopped abruptly as my jeans started to pool with blood.

“It’s nothing,” one of them said, trying to stay calm. Then, completely betraying her efforts she threw up while the other friend yelled, “Sister Rita Mary! Sister Rita Mary! It’s Lezlie. I think she’s going to need stitches.”

As the school bus sped towards the hospital, I was acutely aware of both the pain in my thigh and disappointment of my fellow students whose day I had ruined. Was it my imagination or did their praying lack a certain level of sincerity? 

My reputation for being the kid most likely to get struck by lighting was solidly in place.

In Emergency, lying on the gurney while a doctor pulled out pieces of tree trunk from my leg, I remember my mother saying something to the effect of, “What on earth were you thinking?”

She said this as though I had planned this chain of events.

“Other kids were doing it,” I moaned.

“If other kids jumped off a cliff, would you?”

This always seems like sound logic, unless NOT jumping off isn’t an option. Of course, this was not the case in my circumstance. I had simply, stupidly abandoned what was sure to be logical conclusion of careening, out of control, down a forested cliff - pain followed by tears.

I had never been in a hospital before. My brother was the one who always got stitches. Mostly on account of something I did. Once, while playing Vampire (a game we invented whereupon one of us would come out the sewing bench and try to find the other one in a pitch dark basement) he slipped and abscessed his two front teeth. Another time I dropped a marble table top on his foot. None of these were on purpose, of course, but the fact remains that he, more than I, seemed to be on the wrong end of the proverbial stick. And I, more than he, seemed to be on the side of “shit disturber”.

“Start using that brain of yours,” my mother would tell me. This along with, “You’d lose that head of yours if it wasn’t screwed on tight.”

In reality I’m sure she was just deeply concerned for my safety, and while she couldn’t control outside forces, she hoped to appeal to my common sense when it came to danger.

"Try not to upset your Mother," my father would always tell me, and so I resolved to do better.

When I was in grade 5 we moved into a house on a quiet dead end street that was strangely sandwiched between highway on one side and a cemetery on the other.  There were a small number of homes on this long skinny peninsula and we knew  pretty much everyone who lived there. The Millers whose son was a genius and who looked down on me for being a girl, the Daws who were always collecting for some cause like childhood dysplasia or Beluga whales, the Engels whose daughter, Elise, introduced me to the word ‘cutlery’ and who used her Barbie Dolls to illustrate all manner of sexual experimentation, the Patricks, all 8 of them who somehow fit into the smallest house on the street and whose yard was always scattered with toys, and finally the Coopers. There were six kids in the Cooper family ages 6 - 16, Their house was the first one you came to as you drove down the hill from the main road. Set back a ways from the street, it always looked dark and ominous. Their yard was overgrown with brambles and surrounded by a somewhat dilapidated picket fence. A screened in porch at the front reminded me of an illustration in The Yearling…that is to say a place hidden deep in central Florida among the Spanish moss and alligators.

It was around this time that I learned to ride a bike, and once mastered, I spent long summer afternoons going up and down our street or biking to the end of the of the road where an abandoned orchard stood across from an empty house. Among the trees and overgrown vegetation, I built a fort and spent hours each day sitting inside reading comic books and drinking Kool-aid from a thermos. In the evenings, I volunteered to run any errand that provided me with an opportunity to get on my Huffy Sweet Thunder with pink banana seat and handlebar streamers; so when my father asked if I’d go to the corner store to buy some milk, I was only too happy to oblige.

On top of six kids and a seemingly mysterious abode, the Coopers had a very large St. Bernard that, if Stephen King lived on our street, would certainly have been the inspiration for Cujo. Up until then I was under the impression that St. Bernard’s were the Disney standard for canines. They had great PR. Big, bubbly, always there to help a mountain climber in need. So the first time the Cooper’s dog came bounding at me, I stopped my bike to greet the happy pooch. BIG MISTAKE. About a foot from the curb, the animal launched at me…all 180 pounds. As slobber flew in all directions, I remember how shocked and betrayed I felt when he bit down on my running shoe pulling it clear off my foot and then retreating with it to his yard. There was no retrieving it. I was lucky to escape with my life and peddled away as fast as I could my mother’s words “what were you thinking?” echoing inside my head.

At the variety store the clerk stopped me at the door.

‘No shoes. No service.”

“But…” I stammered.

“No shoes, no service!”

Outside on the curb, I contemplated my situation. Not only had I not accomplished my task, but returning home required my going by the Coopers again. At least this time, I told myself, I’ll be on the other side of the road and I won’t stop. But dogs, as anyone who has ever owned one will know, are creatures of habit and the moment I passed the Coopers, Cujo emerged and chased me down the street, nipping the whole time at my remaining sneaker as I exerted every bit of energy to escape.

I arrived back home looking worse for wear.

“Where is your shoe?” My father asked.

“A dog ate it.”

“Seriously. What happened to your shoe?”

My friend, Kathy Patrick had already warned me, “Whatever you do,” she said, “Don't provoke the Coopers. They are the Mob equivalent of the Little Rascals.” In other words, this was their hood and I was an intruder. Among the other kids in the neighborhood, they had a reputation for being vindictive, hostile, and relentless.

The family also, it turned out, owned the best fish and chip store in town; one we frequented weekly. Did I really want to run the risk of losing the privilege of enjoying that gastronomical delight? I was contemplating all of this when I finally said, that my shoe got stuck to some gum and couldn’t be salvaged.

“And the milk?” He asked.

“I forgot.”

My father eyed me suspiciously.

My mother muttered, “You’d lose that head of yours if it wasn’t screwed on tight.”

That night my parents came into my room and in a rather uncharacteristic two pronged attack, tried to get me to confess what had really happened. Feeling bereft of options, I stuck to my story, convinced that to squeal would only make matters worse.

In the end it wasn’t me who finked on the Coopers. It was my brother who told my mother who told my father who finally made a visit to their house requesting their dog remain in the back yard tied up and monitored. (These were the days when not only did parents yell at their kids but it was still okay to yell at other people’s kids as well.) Mr. and Mrs. Cooper were contrite. They apologized profusely for their children’s behaviour, promised to keep Fluffy (yes, that was the dog’s name) securely in the yard, and sent my Dad home with coupons for free food.

The Cooper kids, however, were less forgiving and sought their revenge on an exceedingly hot July afternoon a few weeks later. They found me in my orchard fort and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the abandoned house across the street. After hurling a barrage of insults at me, they tied me to an old basketball post with skipping rope and doused me with ketchup. I was covered head to foot, and left, a la Joan of Arc on the pyre, in the hot sun for two hours straight. The only reason my brother even found me was because in those days, dinner was announced from the front door of houses and when I failed to turn up, they sent him out to find me.  By now the condiment had congealed and dried to a sticky paste in my hair and on my limbs. I was sunburned and covered in quite a few insects that had crawled to their death, attracted as they were to the sugar.

I wish I could say that this story had a happy ending, in that the Cooper kids were properly disciplined, but no such thing. My brother knew, possibly better than anyone, that there was only one way out of this. After all, there were six of them and a rabid dog against two of us and a turtle.  Guiding me home through the back yards of houses he snuck me into our yard and hosed me off. Inside I changed my clothes and using my brains for once, never said a word about what had happened. My fort now compromised, I took to reading comic books and drinking Kool-aid in a tree in our back yard where no one ever bothered me.

I never had another run-in with the Coopers. I also don't recall our family ever patronizing their establishment again.

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