To any who might be reading this, bless you, thank you, and I've added hyperlinks, highlighting the historical context hoohah. So you can see what some of the real-life people & places look like. CH
In which us Cathcarts and the neighbors meet each other,
Jimmy and I go to the library, and I help Mama get out of having company.
It was still dark early morning when Dad put his freshly shaved and Aqua Velva’d face close to mine and asked, “Are we still buddies?”
“You make sure you get along with your mama today, okay?” I felt a kiss and his warm peppermint breath on my cheek. “She’s gonna need your help this summer. No spending all your time with your nose in a book or drawing pictures. You’re a big girl now.”
“Okay,” I told him. Okay, okay, just go away. Then, to make up for thinking that, I wished him good luck on his new job. He wasn’t a mean dad, not really.
I found Mama in the basement, stuffing jeans into her washing machine. We didn’t have one at Blue Top.
There she had to wait until Daddy could drive her to the
Washeteria in Osceola. She pointed at a couple of big laundry baskets “The best way to help me,” she said, “would be to go hang all this on the line out back. How ‘bout that?”
“Okay.” I couldn’t help noticing that she sort of leaned against the washer, as if she was too pooped to stand on her own. “But don’t you wanna go up and lay down or something?”
“It’s nice and cool down here. I’ll be up in a minute and later,” she said, “maybe you and Jimmy might want to take a walk? See the neighborhood? Not too far, you understand, but maybe you could get acquainted with the library up by the courthouse? I think it’s on Liberty Street. We don’t have to get all settled right today, do we?”
“Nope,” I said. “We could put it off a day or two.” I returned her smile, then I about killed myself, lugging first one heavy basket of wet clothes, then another up the steps and out the back door. I got a look at our new old house in the daytime. It looked better at night, I decided, and pretty ratty compared to all the other houses on our street.
As I pinned up two or three hundred underpants and things, Clark and the twins played Hide & Seek between the wet workpants and bedsheets with a goofy-looking kid with a blond flattop. “This is Darren Culpepper from next door,” said Clark. “This is Carmen. She’s the oldest.”
The little squirt didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He just wiped his nose with the back of his hand and squinted up at me so I asked him, “You any relation to somebody called Robin?”
“She’s my big sister.”
“You guys got a tree house in your front yard?”
The kid frowned. “Yeah, but Robin hardly ever lets me play in it.”
As soon as Jimmy and I started out on our walk, the old man across the street waved at us and began shuffling across his tidy yard. “Hello there!”
The old fellow offered us the hand he wasn’t using on his cane. We shook it and smiled back at him. “Let me tell you children welcome to the neighborhood,” he said.
“I’m Oscar Herman. Isn’t that a terrible name: Oscar?”
“I kind of like it,” Jimmy said.
“Me too,” I added, and it was true. I did.
“She’s Carmen Cathcart and I’m Jimmy. I’m her brother.”
“Why, those are nice names!” said Mr. Herman with a grin. His teeth looked very white and storebought. “Happy to know you.“ Now he used his free hand to tip his ball cap at us. He pointed his walking stick up the street to where two straw-hatted black ladies were bent over working in a garden full of zinnias.
“They’d be the Monroe sisters.” Mr. Herman cranked his voice up louder, “Hey there, Miss Lillian. Pretty day, Miss Effie!”
They waved and called out, “Mornin’, Oscar.”
“These here’re your new neighbors, Carmen and Jimmy!” He paused a little bit and hollered, “Cathcart!” We all waved and said ‘hey’ to each other
Mr. Herman said to us, softly now, “Miss Effie’s the skinny one and the fat one’s Miss Lillian. They both got the arthur-itis -- so do I! -- but they sure do keep up their flowers.”
“Sir,” I told him, “we gotta go to the library. Can we bring you a book?”
His furry eyebrows rose up at the suggestion. “No thanks, I got forty chapters to go on the one I’m reading.” He told us how to find the library as he reached into his pants pocket for a couple of thick white peppermints. “You and Jimmy take these now.”
We thanked him and headed up the sidewalk. It was shaded by trees, broken and humped in places from their roots, like toes poking up under the blankets. Jimmy’s tee shirt was stretched over his soft middle and tucked into his corduroys. I had on my cutoffs. They showed off my knobby white legs to anyone who might be watching. Up by the house on the corner, someone was. “Hey, Jelly-Belly! Who’s your bird-legged girlfriend?” A high school kid sneered and blew a puff of cigarette smoke at us. He was leaning on the propped-open hood of big car, the kind Dad called a “road barge.” It sat next to a rusty-looking pickup truck. “You part of that hillbilly family that moved into the spook house?”
He looked like he’d put the black oil from his old Cadillac right on his hair. Just as this bozo flicked his cigarette at us, a flying something out of nowhere bopped him on the head. “Ow!” he yelped.
There she was, the moon-faced, tree girl, standing in the middle of the sidewalk with her hands on her hips. “That’s what you get, Richie Scudder, you creep!”
“Yeah, yeah, big talk, Pudge,” he jeered back. He picked up the apple she’d thrown at him and took a bite out of it. “I was just welcoming the little twerps to the neighborhood.”
The girl spit on the sidewalk in his direction, then walked over to us. “Richie thinks being a bully makes up for being a dope.”
She was pretty. Her eyes were the kind with smoke rings around the blue and her skin was pale like Snow White who’d have gotten terrible sunburns if she hadn’t lived with dwarves in the woods where it was shady. I admired the red ribbon braided through her long black pigtails and couldn’t help grinning at her.
“You’re Robin Culpepper, right?”
At first she frowned, me knowing her name and all. “So who are you?”
Jimmy poked his hand out at her the way Mr. Herman had to us. “And I’m James.”
Robin smiled and shook his hand.
“You want to come with us?” he asked. “We’re going to get our library cards.”
She tilted her head sideways, sizing us up. “I gotta go ask.”
At first I was afraid she’d be sorry she went to all the trouble of getting her folks to let her go for a walk with us because Jimmy was in an informative mood. He told her all the other kids’ names, that we’d lived on a farm, that we used to have a goat named Gertie, and that goats’ eyes are shaped like rectangles.
“Not the whole eye, but the black pupil thing in the middle. Our eyes and turtle eyes are round -- cats’ are pointy. That’s just for you to know. And guess what else?” he said before I could shut him up. “Our Mom’s gonna have another baby!”
“Neato! A brand new baby -- right next door! It must be fun, being in a big family,” Robin said, digging a yo-yo out of her shorts pocket. “Ours is just my folks and Darren and me.”
Fun? The words ‘hillbilly family’ were still scorched and smoking in my brain, I glanced at Jimmy and said, “It’s sort of fun. Sometimes.” Okay, it was. Sometimes.
Richie came roaring past us, blasting his car horn. “Creep!” we called after him. “It’s a good thing you guys moved into that house,” Robin said, sending her yo-yo out and back, snap. “I was afraid it was gonna be buried in weeds and junk like a Sleeping Beauty castle with the ghost of old lady Millinder -- that used to be her house, you know -- still spooking around in there. Or it’d get torn down like my mom says it should’ve been years ago --.” Robin flicked a wary look at us. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have talked about your house like that.”
Since I didn’t want to say I agreed with her mom, I changed the subject. “So is your junior high school really big?”
Robin yo-yo’d a few steps before she said, “Yeah. When I first went there last year, in seventh grade, I got lost a lot. You gotta be quick between classes, getting to your locker and stuff.”
“We’ll walk by Maple Street,” she went on, “so you can see it if you want to.”
“I do,” said Jimmy.
The school was made out of bricks. It looked old-fashioned -- and huge, compared to the school we’d been going to. Jimmy and I stared at it while Robin Rocked-the-Baby with her yo-yo. I think she figured out I was nervous.
“’Everybody’s dumb the first week’ is what my dad says and he teaches high school.” Then Robin kind of bugged out her eyes. “This whole junior high thing gives me the creeps. Don’t tell anyone, but I still miss elementary.”
“Me too,” I said, feeling relieved. Maybe eighth grade wouldn’t be too gross after all. To make myself seem like a casual person someone would want to be friends with, I picked up a stick and clattered it along a picket fence as we went on walking. “Have you always lived in this town?”
Robin nodded. “Same old house, same old town. Boring, huh?”
“I think that’d be neat,” I said softly.
“Me too,” said Jimmy.
“He’s the one who decided to drop the big bombs on Japan,” Jimmy told us even though we knew that already, of course. “Dad said it settled their hash once and for all and ended World War II, but still --. Do you guys suppose he has nightmares? About those bombs?”
Robin didn’t think so, but she didn’t look too sure about it. “Do you like President Kennedy?” I asked, following after her.
“My dad and I do. My mom voted for Mr. Nixon, though.”
I liked our president. I’d tried to draw him and the First Lady a thousand times, but I never yet made them look as handsome and beautiful as they did in Mama’s magazines.
We walked past a statue of Andrew Jackson on a prancing horse on a big stone pedestal. Robin gave Jimmy a poke in the arm. “They named this county here after him. Just for you to know.”
Jimmy gazed up at the statue. “He was the seventh president,” he said, kind of automatic and dreamy. Robin’s eyebrows went up, like she’d never met anybody like Jimmy.
In the dim, cool library, Robin aimed us at a lady who gave Jimmy and me library card forms to fill out. “You can each check out one book today,” she said, “since this is your first visit.”
“Do you have any art books?” I asked.
It turned out that she had loads of big, thick, glossy ones. Robin and Jimmy went off to the kid books while I followed the librarian’s pointed finger to the art section. “Boy,” I whispered, “I’m going to love living here!”
I pulled a heavy book out of a bottom shelf. The outside said BOTTICELLI. That was the painter’s name, it turned out. The book was full of pictures of what must have been his painted daydreams of a mythological country full of pale, purely beautiful goddesses with long necks like flower stems. Just the sort of fairytale perfection you’d never find in real life. Not in mine anyway.
“You gonna carry that book all the way home?” Robin asked. “It must weigh four or five tons.”
“It’s okay.” I cradled the book in my arms, which were about to fall off by the time we got to the grade school on the corner by our street.
“That school’s about three times bigger than the school we went to in Vista,” said Jimmy.
“My mom teaches first grade there,” said Robin. “Hey, maybe she’ll have your little brothers in her class.”
I rolled my eyes. “Lucky her.”
Robin glanced at her house. “You guys wanna come in?”
“Uh, no thanks.” Jimmy held up his biography of Kit Carson from the library. “I gotta go read my book.”
“I do,” I told him, “so could you take my book with you?”
“Sure, okay.” Jimmy took my Botticelli book, then made a face like I’d handed him a sack of cannonballs.
Robin’s house smelled like Clorox, Ajax, furniture polish, floor wax, and cake-in-the-oven. I marveled at the tidy, polished, rich-people living room. There was even a glossy black piano with its lid up, like on television. I saw a bit of gleaming kitchen.
“My folks must be in the back yard or something,” said Robin. “Wanna come see my room?”
“Sure!” All along the carpet-covered stairway, pictures of Darren and Robin, from baby-days to now, marched up the walls. At the top of the stairs there were suitcases.
“We’re going up to Minnesota to visit my grandparents,” Robin said, seeing my curiosity. “We go every year.”
We just met and she was leaving? That was a lousy thing to find out. “When will you be back?”
“After the Fourth of July,” she said. “This is my room.”
It was like walking into a magazine picture of “A Perfect Blue and White Bedroom For Your Little Girl.” There was a dollhouse in the corner and a canopy over Robin’s bed. It made me feel kind of rotten and jealous.
“Where have you been?”
A tall woman with short dark hair and a starched blouse was standing in the doorway. It looked like you could slice boiled potatoes with the sharp crease in her slacks.
“We went to the library, Mom. Dad said I could go.” “Well then, you can tell him why you’re late for your piano lesson. Did you go downtown with your blouse not even ironed?” Then she looked at me and flicked the smile-switch in her head to ON. “I’m Mrs. Culpepper, Robin’s mother. And you’re --?”
“Carmen Cathcart” I said. “Uh – we just moved here yesterday. You know, next door.” I motioned my hand in the direction of my house while Robin tried to iron her plaid blouse with her fingers.
“Well, Carmen,” Mrs. Culpepper said, as we followed her down the steps past all the pictures, “your mother must have her hands full, getting settled and all. And is it true what my son tells me? That she’s going to have another little one soon?”
“Yes, ma’am.” My face felt like one of those cartoon thermometers going hotter, hotter, up, up, up.
Aunt Bevy said once, “For every person you meet there’s a wonderful-horrible set of stories that would just flat wear you out if you knew ’em.” Just by going in her house and meeting her mom, I got a lot of clues about Robin. I figured Mrs. Culpepper probably deserved to have Harry and Larry in her class.
“Is this the girl-next-door?” said a deep voice. The light haired, cheerful guy who owned it gave Robin’s braid a friendly tug. “Jim Culpepper,” he said, sticking out his hand for a shake.
“I’m Carmen, uh, Carmen Cathcart. Nice to meet you.”
Robin’s mom went off to her shiny kitchen. Mr. Culpepper plunked himself down at the piano and began playing as good as on a record. He asked me if I liked Beethoven and I remembered that he was a high school music teacher.
“Uh, yes sir. I think so.”
“Caaaaaar-men!” Clark hollered from out in the yard, “Mama wants you!” just as Robin’s mom appeared beside me, a cake in her hands.
“We’ll walk over with you, Carmen, and welcome your mother to the neighborhood -- Jim?” She’d have snapped her fingers at him, seemed like, if she hadn’t had her hands full. I looked from Robin to her parents. Good grief! These tidy people? In our crummy old messy house?
“No!” I blurted.