When the kids in the neighborhood used to fight old Mrs. Purtlebaugh would call us to her porch. We'd all stand around, kicking imaginary rocks, looking at the ground.
"What do you have to say for yourselves?" she'd ask. Five or six mumbled answers later, "That's what I thought. Now, who wants apple pie?" Well, ten or twelve eyes would brighten with anticipation. Next thing you know, she'd give us all a big piece of pie.
It wasn't until years later that I realized
that she never once gave us
apple pie. It was always cherry. And, it didn't matter. Why? Because
most stuff doesn't. I miss that woman, and her apple pie.
So, then Mrs. Purtlebaugh would always
go back in the house and come
out with this big ol’' pitcher of milk. Once in a while, she'd yell across the
way at Mr. Pfizer. "Hey, Mr. Pfizer!!!" she'd say. He'd look up and
grin, maybe a nod. We'd all go back to eating our 'apple' pie and all was
right with the world. Sometimes even now, I look across the way and see
Mr. Pfizer waving down the street at someone. He's been dead for years.
On a day with a good breeze, the old tire swing will sway to and fro. All
is right with the world. Stuff just doesn't matter...
So, that's about the time ol’' Mrs. Purtlebaugh'd come out the back screen door. It'd slam shut with a bang. She'd carry her laundry basket over to the clothesline. Johnny Shiflet and I would run and hide behind the old tool shed. We were supposed to be pulling weeds from the flower beds. We could hear her and Mrs. Thacker talking about the preserves they were going to make. I always hated the preserves.
Mrs. Thacker said "Well, you know the
peaches ain't gonna ‘mount to anything this year, Bea?"
Mrs. Purtlebaugh said, "We'll just have to make do, I suppose." And, they did.
"How are those boys doing on your flower beds?" Mrs. Thacker asked.
"Well, as good as they can, I believe" echoed off the garage next
If we had actually been pulling the weeds,
I still wouldn't have been doing as good as I could. This bothered me some.
Not enough to keep me from sneaking across the alley and into the Miller's
garden for some radishes. Mrs. Purtlebaugh let out a wonderful laugh that
filled the neighborhood with a smile. Everyone knew she was happy. That made
everyone happy, too. I snuck back into the yard, radishes in hand, and started
pulling weeds in the flower beds. The spring on the screen door creaked
its melody, then the door slammed shut again...
“But, not this time…”
"Get your feet off there" she said, the
squeak of the swing providing background music. I put my feet back on the
porch. She sat a pitcher of
tea on the table, ice still swimming in circles. I hated tea. I never told her, though. The phone rang and she went back in to answer it. I could hear her talking. The air went dead from the weight of tension. Something was wrong in the world of Mrs. Purtlebaugh. I could feel fear move through my body. What was wrong? Who was it wrong to?
A few unenjoyable minutes passed before
she returned. This time she
had her purse and a sweater. Her keys were jingling in her hand. "I'm gonna have to leave for a little while. I'll be back in a bit" she said in a rush. She got in her car and left. She rarely drove, and for good reason.
I went out to the sidewalk and watched
crawlers squirm from this side to
that. It wasn't much fun, though. I had no idea what was happening, but
I knew it wasn't good. Finally, the canary yellow of Mrs.Purtlebaugh's
Dodge Dart came around the corner, blue smoke puffing out the back. She
slowly maneuvered it into her garage. She quickly made her way back to
the house, without a word to me. Something was wrong in the world of Mrs. Purtlebaugh. I didn't like it.
I started to walk home, pulling a Willow
branch at the Wilson's. I could hear Mrs. Wilson talking on the phone through
the kitchen window, dishes clinking together. "He was only 22," she said.
Mom and I had a talk that night. Seems like learning about death teaches
you the most about life.
“…and then she said…”
...and the knob on top of the pressure
cooker was chattering with its urgency. The kitchen smelled of things being
"Can we? Please?" I said, reduced to begging.
"Well," she said, looking over the top of the newspaper, "who's gonna clean up the mess?"
"There won't be a mess. Promise." I guaranteed.
"Well, if there won't be a mess, then okay. But only for a little while."
I only heard part of what she had said, as I was already on my way outside. Mr. Purtlebaugh's old tool shed was a young boy's make-believe heaven. Jimmy Shiflet and I were going to play 'hardware store'. The old tool shed could have been one, too. It had it all.
Jimmy knocked the 2x4 holding the door shut out of our way, thereby opening our afternoon's play land. The smell of old oil and rust took us back in time to what we perceived as simpler days, as if we knew the difference. Jimmy was the to be the storekeeper on this day. And a good one he was.
"How 'bout some of them ten-penny nails?" I said matter-of-factly. In a flash he had me a glass jar of what I guess were ten-penny nails. I never did know how many pennies were in a nail. He sat my order on the counter and asked if there was anything else he could help me with. This was a good question. The answer is when the problem began.
"How 'bout one of them tubes of grease?"
was what I started to say.
Really. But, somewhere between "them" and "tubes" I began to point at them tubes of grease. This, in itself, was not a bad thing. The bad thing was that I knocked the jar of what I guessed to be ten penny nails to the floor. I looked at Jimmy, and he at me. Our hearts were still pounding when Johnnie Johnson comes to the door.
"Hey, we're playing stick ball at Brownie's
in 5 minutes. You guys gonna be there?"
"You bet," was all Jimmy said as he ran from the shed.
"Hey, wait" I said, running behind. One quick look at the shards of glass and pile of nails and I knew I wasn't going to clean it up alone. I chased Jimmy to our bikes in the alley, with every intention on bringing him back to help clean up. Somehow, when I got to the bike and saw my mitt, and Jimmy riding away, I forgot about everything but stickball. Before I knew it, I was chasing a line drive to deep centerfield.
Several hours passed and the Sun was
fading. As I rode my bike up the alley, and behind the tool shed, I could
hear the angry bristles of Mrs.
Purtlebaugh's broom against the concrete floor, the occasional tinkle of broken glass. As my pedals slowed a bit, I felt pretty bad.
Thinking back just now, I feel bad all
“For the love of…”
"That don't go there," she yelled from
"I know. I was just seein' if anything else needed to go downstairs," I lied. I don't know how she always knew when I was trying to get out of work. I guess because I was always trying to get out of work.
I walked down the stairs, each with its own creak, to the basement. The potpourri of mildew, mold and mothballs that greeted me there was an aroma that told me that I was, indeed, in the basement of an old person. I could hear Mrs. Purtlebaugh walking around in the kitchen. I followed the sound of the floorboards creaking with my eyes.
There was a shelf with Mason jars full of vegetables that Mrs. Purtlebaugh had canned. Lots of beets and green beans. One jar of beets was too many for me. I wondered if she ever opened the jars, or just kept them on the shelf.
As I headed back up the stairs, the phone rang. The floor creaked as she made her way to answer it. As I got to the top step, I heard her laugh that never-ending laugh of hers.
"Not if you keep it blue like that. Uh-huh. Uh-Hmmm...." she said. "Last time I did that, Hazel was here to help."
I went to the livingroom and sat down
on the davenport. There was an orange and yellow and brown Afghan draped
across the back, so I covered up with it. Mrs. Purtlebaugh's occasional
"Is that right?" let me know that all was well with the world. Well enough
that I could doze off for a few minutes and...
"...and then it did."
So, I was sitting with my back against the split-rail fence in the front yard. I was throwing a tennis ball against the limestone steps of the front porch. As it bounced back, I imagined that I was Brooks Robinson fielding every 'grounder' that came my way.
I heard a bit of a commotion from down the street. I turned my head just a bit and looked through the fence. A man with a rucksack and a mutt were walking down the other side of the street. The Mason's dog was barking at them plenty. I kept throwing my tennis ball, but watched the man all the while.
As the man and dog walked by, I could hear him mumbling to the dog. Talking like he was expecting the dog to answer. The dog never did, that I know of. They made their way down the sidewalk, and I went back to playing third base. I could hear the neighbors talking a bit, and everyone was kinda watching without looking.
"Hey! Who is that?" Jimmy Shiflet asked
in a whisper loud enough to hear across the street.
"Never seen him before" I whispered back, motioning for Jimmy to join me.
"Tony Stratt's mom says he's been sleeping down at the railyard for three days. He's a bum!" Jimmy informed me.
"Wow! I wonder where he's going. Look at those clothes."
About that time Mrs. Purtlebaugh walks
out on the front porch with lemonade. It still had lemon slices in it.
I loved that. "What's everyone lookin' at?" she asked.
"There's a bum over there" I said, pointing from behind the wisteria.
"Who said he's a bum?" she asked.
"Tony Stratt's mom" I told her.
"Everyone's a bum to Tony Stratt's mom. Now, you boys go on and play. I'm gonna take our friend a glass of lemonade."
"You're gonna what? He's a hobo. He might be crazy."
"Crazy? My lands" she said as she made her way through the gate.
Me and Jimmy got behind our wisteria cover and watched in disbelief. Mrs. Purtlebaugh walked right up to the man and handed him a glass of lemonade. She stood and talked while he drank, and occasionally she'd bend and pet the mutt. After a few minutes, she turned and headed back to the safety of porch. As she passed us, still behind the wisteria, she said "Hmmm, he's from Texas."
Well, a couple of days went by and the man and dog were seen about town. I think folks were finally starting to get used to them. Jimmy said he even saw them go into Skree's Diner. The novelty was wearing off.
Mrs. Purtlebaugh was cutting my hair on the front porch. We could hear the Mason's dog barking and Mrs. Purtlebaugh said "I'll bet that's Mr. Samson coming." Sure enough, in a few seconds Mr. Samson came into view, his mutt right behind. Mrs. Purtlebaugh went back to cutting my hair.
All the sudden there was a loud screech. Things kinda stopped for a second. Mr. Page's station wagon was sitting crooked in the street. Mr. Samson rushed to the front of the car and bent over. When he stood up, he was sobbing loudly, holding the dog close to his chest. He carried the dog to the curb and sat down, crying all the while.
"Oh, my word..." Mrs. Purtlebaugh said,
somber as the mood.
"It was just a mutt" I said.
Mrs. Purtlebaugh looked at me with a mixture of pain and anger and sorrow. I had never seen that look before. "There's no such thing as 'just', when you're talking about a life."
"Seven, if you can."
...right as the fly hit the window. About
that time, the front door opened and Mrs. Purtlebaugh came out. I was still
messing with the string. Mrs. P. walked down the sidewalk to the front gate.
I looked away from my box long enough to notice she had a flag in her hand.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"Who," she said.
"Who?" I asked, thoroughly confused.
"Johnny Plummer" she said.
"Who the heck is Johnny Plummer?" I thought. I knew there were some Plummers that lived across from the Farm Bureau. There wasn't a "Johnny", though.
"Oh," I said, too embarrassed to admit I didn't know Johnny Plummer.
She let the flag unfurl and gently flap in the breeze. Satisfied, she turned and made her way back to the front porch. About halfway there, she notice a weed in the begonias and stopped to pull it. All of the sudden, my string pulled taut. I knew Jimmy was ready.
I ran to the backyard, hurdling some
dried peonies. My landing was less than graceful and I almost slid into Jimmy.
"Watch it," he said, grabbing his box.
"Hey, who's Johnny Plummer?" I asked.
"Mrs. P. just put a flag up and said it was for him."
"He used to live out by the Farm Bureau. I ain't seen him for a while, though."
For everyone who ever died before they should have, whatever the reason.
"As long as it was..."
Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Green beans were dropping into the bucket
at a fierce pace. Well, at least from Mrs. Purtlebaugh's row. My green bean
plants seemed to be much
less productive. I'm not sure why that was.
"You've got to look behind the leaves. Like this" she said, showing
me how to look into the inner soul of a green bean plant.
"I am. There just aren't that many."
"I'll come help you when I finish this row," she said, wiping her brow with a handkerchief she had tucked in a pocket on her sun dress. "I want to be done before
the sun gets hot."
"Bea, are you gonna work that boy to death?" came from across the
"I don't think so," Mrs. Purtlebaugh laughed. "I was just thinking that if he likes to eat green beans, he could help pick some."
I hated green beans. I actually hated most beans. I also hated
picking them. I hated the way the leaves from the sweet corn brushed across
my neck and made me itch.
Everything had dew on it. My shirt was soaked. I hated the garden.
"Why don't you run along? I'll finish up here,” she said. She went back to talking to Mrs. Thacker. "I saw in the paper that the ‘Five and Dime’ is..." was all I heard as I rounded the house for the front yard, and my bike.
Once on my Stingray, I headed to the town square to see who was
hanging out. The five blocks between Mrs. Purtlebaugh's house and the court
house offered an
obstacle course that is every bike rider's dream. Maple tree roots pushed sections of sidewalk up like playing cards strewn about a lawn needing mowed. Curbs and potholes and alleys all offered their own tests to be passed. The occasional trash can,
or sleeping dog, or morning newspaper to dodge and the trip became a wonderful challenge.
I made the square just in time to watch the 9:15 train rattle through. It was always 10:30 when the 9:15 went through. There used to be a story that told why that was. I never did understand it, and can't remember it now. Neither one runs through town anymore.
Nobody was at Montgomery Wards yet. The soda fountain at Kresge’s wasn’t even open. I stopped at the barbershop to get a sucker. Mr. Thomas said that Shackley had been there for a cut and was headed to Marco with his mom. He was thinking of getting a job detasseling corn.
I saw Jenny Spencer coming out of the flower shop on the corner. She was dressed up and looked nice. I always had a thing for Jenny Spencer. Nobody ever knew it, though. Not even Jenny. I wondered why she was in the flower shop and all dressed up on a Wednesday morning. She got in a car with her dad in it. He wasn't driving, though. She didn't even say anything to me. She never did.
Snap. Snap. Snap. Green beans were being snapped in two and thrown onto a newspaper. The kitchen table was full of broken green beans and empty Ball-Mason jars. Mrs. Purtlebaugh was on the telephone.
“Whose car was it?”
I got a grape Nehi out of the refrigerator and opened it.
"Well, that's what she said."
Mr. Potter's John Deere sputtered its way down Tulip Street. Mr.Potter gave me a two-fingered wave, just like he always did. I waved back. That's the kind of town Lyons, Indiana was.
Mrs. Purtlebaugh was shaking throw-rugs. Dust was flying and she was sneezing. I was sitting on a five gallon bucket underneath the Maple tree. I'd been collecting Junebug ghosts, but lost interest.
"Ain't the Sadie
Hawkins Dance tonight?" Mrs.Purtlebaugh asked.
"Yup" I said, matter-of-factly.
"Are you going?"
"I'm thinkin' so."
"Who asked ya?"
"Well, nobody yet. I'm pretty sure Jenny Eel's going to, though"
The phone rang and Mrs. Purtlebaugh went inside, sneezing as the screen-door slammed. A hummingbird buzzed past and stopped at the hosta briefly. I had to watch. I always did. Jimmy Shiflet's new Stingray, complete with banana seat and sissy bar, came into view down the sidewalk. He was looking excited about something.
"Hey, wanna go
to the drive-in with us tonight?" he said.
"I can't. I think I have plans. What's playing anyway?"
"'The Monster that Ate Saigon'. Mom said she'd take us. What are you doing?"
"I'm not sure" I said. I didn't want to tell him I hadn't been asked to the dance yet.
"Hey! Did you hear who asked Shadley to the Hawkins Dance?"
"That Eel girl. How 'bout that? Well, let me know if you wanna go to the drive-in" he said as he rode off.
The screen-door slammed again and Mrs. Purtlebaugh was standing on the porch. This time with a plate of Divinity and a glass of milk.
"So, what time
does the dance start?" she asked as she sat on the porch swing.
"I don't know. I ain't going" I said. "I'm going to the movies with the Shiflets instead."
Mr. Pfizer's pick-up
crept past and he gave me a two-fingered wave, just like he always did...
As it were...
“Well, we’ll just
have to wait and see. Won’t we?” she said. The ice cream cone had melted
on her hand. She didn’t notice.
“I didn’t mean anything. I was just sayin’ that I thought he would.” I explained. Apparently she was having an entirely different conversation than the one I was having. I just wished that it hadn’t turned into an argument without me even knowing why.
“Don’t call me”
as the door opened, hitting the bell. It hit the bell as it closed, too.
I just sat there, staring at my sundae. I had no idea what had just happened.
A pleasant chat over ice cream one second, became a teary-eyed girl yelling
at me the next. I had more or less forgotten about the others in the shop.
I wish they’d forgotten me,
I walked past Bauer’s tire store. I loved watching the guy air up tires on that machine. The way they popped into place always made me jump. He always had a red rag in his pocket, and grease on his hands. The smell of rubber, and oil, and cars and stuff…the smell of work. It didn’t seem to have its lure today. I didn’t even punch the man made of tires.
I watched the oil rainbows in a puddle behind the shop for a while. I could change the shapes, and colors, by spitting in the puddle. I was feeling restless, though. It was going to take more than contaminated water to keep my attention today. I had had an argument with a girl. That has to be more important than industrial waste in an alley.
I was ready to leave when a pick-up truck full of limbs turned into the alley. I stepped back to let him pass when he abruptly stopped. He opened the door and stepped out of the truck. He stepped right into the puddle of oily water. He looked at his shoes, then at me.
“I don’t know what you’re up to son. But, if you don’t watch what you say to my daughter, there’s going to be trouble.” Then, poking me in the chest, he said “Watch your step.” He tried shaking his shoes off as he got back in the truck, but I don’t think it helped. The inside of the truck was pretty dirty, too.
I headed to Mrs. Purtlebaugh’s house. I knew she could pick up my spirits. She’d probably give me a glass of lemonade and tell me about when she was a girl working at the cord factory. That’s where she met Mr. Purtlebaugh. She probably had some cookies made, too. I couldn’t wait to see the trellis over her gate, and the comfort that waited inside.
As I opened the gate, the front door opened and Mrs. Purtlebaugh came out. My initial feelings of relief were quickly dashed.
“What did you say to Peggy!?!”
I was sure of it. I’d never been more sure of anything in my life. But, for some reason, I couldn’t convince her. She just stood there, looking at the water.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed the rope and jumped. I sailed out over the water with the grace of a penguin. The leaves on the oak tree jiggled just a bit as I released my grip on the rope. I was airborne for what seemed like an hour. An hour that ended with a splash and cool water rinsing away all the stress of being a kid on summer break. The stress of being a kid in love.
I resurfaced to the warm sunshine and cool breeze. The rope was still swaying across the top of the water. Renee stood on the shore, wanting badly to jump, but just as badly not to. I slowly made my way to the muddy bank, grabbing the rope as it passed overhead. I would slip and slide as I tried to climb the bank, nearly falling a couple of times. Renee laughed, but wouldn’t help.
“See, I told you it was alright,” I said, being careful to not drop the rope as I reached the top of the bank.
“It’s just such a long drop. What if I hit something?” her voice was trembling with pure innocence and beauty.
“I didn’t. I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t know it was okay” I said, being as reassuring as I knew how to be. “How ‘bout if I go with you?”
She thought for a minute, looking at the water, then the oak tree. She looked at the water again. It was still the same. So was the oak tree.
“You’ll go with me?”
She took the rope in her hands, squeezing so tightly her knuckles turned white. She looked at me, her eyes saying, “I trust you”. I put my hands on the rope just below hers and looked at her. She was scared to death.
Then, it happened. Standing there, holding a rope on the edge of Bender Lake, I kissed a girl for the first time in my life. It was as magical as I’d hoped, and more. Never has the right time for a first kiss been more right.
She turned and looked at the lake again. “One, two, three…” she counted as we jumped for the first of many times that afternoon. The biggest jump of the day didn’t involve any water, though.
We stopped at the Fishin’ Shedd on the way back to her house. We split a Grape Nehi and each got a big blue gum ball. Our lips didn’t know what color to be. It didn’t matter.
We slowly walked down the alley behind her house. The Martin’s dog was sleeping in the shade of a trash barrel. He snored as we passed. Neither of us wanted the walk to end. I hated seeing the gate to her back yard.
“Thanks for taking me swimming,” she said as she opened the gate.
“Oh, that’s alright,” I said, knowing I had enjoyed it more than her.
She kissed me again and went inside. I stood there, enjoying the moment. Finally, I turned and walked away.
“She kissed me, Sam!!!” I said as I passed the Martin’s dog.
“She kissed me!!!” He snorted.
“So, ya finally kissed her, did ya?” Mrs. Purtlebaugh said as I walked up the steps to the porch.
“How could you tell?”
“’cause your glow was here ten minutes before you were.”
copyright 2003-2008 Felix J. McGillicuddy
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