In which I write a letter, Dad tells a ghost story, Jimmy and I get mail, Walter Cronkite tells us the last straw and there are the best and worst of times.
I found a box of stationery, a present from Aunt Bevy to Mama, who’d never opened it. “I guess it’s mine now,” I muttered to myself. With my blue ballpoint pen and my best handwriting, I wrote a letter on a sheet of the pink paper, folded it up and stuck it in its pink envelope.
Friday, October 11, 1963
Dear Mrs. Montisano,
I already went to the office this morning before First Hour and told the counselor that I wanted to take Study Hall instead of your class from now on. I hope this does not hurt your feelings. I would really rather be in your class, but if I don’t start taking Study Hall on Monday, I will flunk.
Your former student,
Before Art class was even over, I’d put most of my art supplies into my crumpled lunch sack, my heart pounding every time Mrs. Montisano walked past my table. It took me a while to get up the nerve to hand her the pink envelope and say,
“This is for you.”
“What is it?” Then, loudly, “Class, start cleaning up. The bell’s about to ring.”
“Uhm...” I looked away from her smile and gathered up the rest of my things. “You’ll see.” Greg and some other kids shot puzzled frowns at us as everybody milled around the sink and the door, all noisy and busting for school to be over for the weekend. “You in trouble?” Greg whispered as Mrs. Montisano’s eyes flitted over my note. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips parted.
“No. Well, kind of...” I answered him through gritted teeth, not wanting to see his blue eyes looking at me. The bell clanged. Mrs. Montisano shouted over the racket, “See you Monday!”
I was going to make for the door with everybody else, but she clamped her hand on my arm. “Carmen –?”
“I gotta get to Mr. Henderson’s class.”
“I’ll write him a note,” she said, jerking her head in the direction of her cluttered-up desk. I wished I could run out into the hall. Instead, I followed her, her smock billowing out like a purple sail. Already ninth graders, coming in for their last class of the day, were giving me curious looks as I rehearsed what I’d say to Mrs. Montisano. I wasn’t planning on what she said to me.
“Carmen, I know about your mother’s passing.”
“The other teachers and I have talked about your dilemma.”
They had? My – what?
“Your problem,” Mrs. Montisano explained, seeing my frown. “I just wanted to tell you I know how hard this decision must have been for you.”
I looked down at the pennies in my loafers. “It was Robin Culpepper’s idea.”
“Well, it shows a lot of character on your part. Robin’s smart. She sounds like a good friend, too. You’d better get going now.” Mrs. Montisano began scribbling on a piece of her yellow notepaper. “Give this to Mr. Henderson.”
“Okay.” It’d be too sappy to tell her I was going to miss her, besides, I was getting a lump in my throat. “Thanks,” I said.
She gave me a sad sort of smile. “Will you stop by if you have any art questions?” I nodded. “Tuck your supplies away somewhere safe,” she said. “I know you’ll use’em again.” I was just about out the door when Mrs. Montisano called out, right in front of all those big kids, “I’ll miss you in my class, Carmen. You were my best artist!”
The trees got prettier as October went by and school got better as I was able to get my homework done, but home? In a way, it was getting worse. My dad was making me more worried than usual. Mostly he was his regular self, except he never sang anymore. And it wasn’t just that he looked extra tired when he came dragging in from work or that he punched his bedroom wall and hurt his hand. Or that sometimes he drank a little bit more beer than a normal thirsty person oughta drink. It was all that stuff put together. I wouldn’t dare remind him of that crazy thing he said, about us moving again, but I could tell from his gloomy ways that he was still thinking about it. Jimmy was worried too. He was good at noticing.
“We gotta cheer Dad up,” he said, turning around from his sinkful of supper dishes to look at all of us.
“How?” Larry asked. Georgie thought we should get him some candy.
“He needs to make some friends,” said Clark.
Having a party was Harry’s idea.
“Hey!” I patted the little squirt on the back. “That’s a perfect idea! It could be a combination party: part Robin’s birthday, part thank you for our neighbors being so nice to us here lately.”
“And,” said Jimmy, “the other third to cheer up Dad.” He’d been studying fractions.
It wasn’t hard to get the boys to print and color invitations once I told’em they could use up my leftover tempera paints. “But don’t you guys bother any of my other art supplies,” I said, giving Georgie the skunk eye. They were put away, safe under my socks, like Mrs. Montisano told me. “Harry, you and Larry and Clark decorate the front room, okay?”
“For Halloween or for birthday?”
“Both,” I told them.
A grin split Clark’s pointy face. “Neat!”
I baked Robin a cake, chocolate, with extra frosting.
“Could you buy some orange candles?” I asked Dad. “But what about a present?”
“Hmmm....,” he said. He was chopping onions for the stew he was making for supper. Then he looked up at me. “Oh, I got me a good idea for that.”
“You’ll see.” He just wiggled his eyebrows at me and began prying the lid off of a jar of Mama’s tomatoes. “You better go check on the baby and see what Georgie’s getting into.”
I asked him again, but he didn’t tell me his neat idea until right when it was time for him and me to begin on it. Now, he only talked about us straightening up the house for company.
My little brothers taped a bunch of black paper bats to the soda straw castle and made a banner of cut-out letters: HAPPY SPOOKDAY ROBIN. All this swayed over and surrounded Robin’s family, us Cathcarts, the Monroe ladies and old Mr. Herman. We filled up our old couch and every single chair we had. Mr. Beeler sat on the floor by Aunt Bevy, but I guessed he wanted to anyway, so they could hold hands and look lovey-dovey at each other.
“Happy birthday, there, Robin,” Dad said. He beamed a rusty smile at everybody. “Gosh, it’s nice to have you all here.”
I was pretty sure he’d realize now that it’d be horrible to ever move away from all these people.
Mama and any other spirits who might be listening heard about Mr. Herman’s young manhood in Philadelphia “when I was a shoe salesman and had to wear a suit every day! Different suspenders for every day of the week!” Mr. Herman, who held baby Velvet in his lap, used his free hand to snap the stripey suspenders that were holding his old-man pants up under his armpits. Robin got her dad to tell about his barbershop quartet.
“And,” she said proudly, “he sings in the choir at church too.”
“You all ought to come hear us on Sunday,” said Mr. Culpepper. “I should’ve invited you before now.”
“Oh yes,” said Miss Effie. “You Cathcarts need you a church home.”
“We go to that church over on College Street sometimes,” Jimmy offered.
I told Mr. Culpepper, “We’d like to come hear you sing though,” in case Jimmy had accidentally hurt his feelings.
“My, Carmen,” Miss Effie went on, “did you bake this cake?” Then she told us how she almost got married to a baker in North Carolina. “Oh my, he was a good looker in his white coat.”
“But he was like a rug: he lied all over the place,” put in Miss Lillian.
Miss Effie snorted. “He was a charmer, even so.”
Before they retired, the Monroe ladies were schoolteachers, like Mrs. Culpepper.
“Oh, yes,” said Miss Lillian, “up in Des Moines, Iowa. I taught high school. Effie there taught the little ones.”
Harry smiled up at Robin’s mom, displaying his new front teeth. “I think you’re the best teacher, Mrs. Culpepper.”
Robin and I stole glances at each other, but the smile her mom gave Harry didn’t have a smidge of crankiness in it. “It’s good of you to say so, Harry,” she said. “Thank you.”
Darren tugged on Dad’s sleeve. “Clark said you used to be a hobo. Is that true?”
“Is that so?” Miss Effie exclaimed. Everybody looked at Dad, especially Mrs. Culpepper, whose eyebrows lifted like she didn’t much approve of how Dad spent the good old days.
Dad jutted out his jaw and sucked on his teeth like he does when he’s thinking. Then he said, “Well, that was bad times when there were plenty of fellers, some as young as Jimmy here, out ridin’ the rails, looking for work to do. We weren’t bums, I can tell you.” Daddy glanced at Mrs. Culpepper. “I can tell you all a tale from those days, son, a Halloween tale, as a matter of fact. A lot of good stories come out of bad times. Wouldn’t you say so, Mr. Herman?”
“That’s a fact,” said the old man.
“Oh, that’s true,” said Miss Lillian.
Dad rubbed his eyes and began telling us about the Halloween night “back in ‘39 out in Tennessee” when he crawled into a boxcar and met an old man named Sam. “He told me a tall tale ‘bout -- well, you all know the statue of General Andy Jackson on his horse up on the Square, right there by the courthouse?” The little boys nodded, open-mouthed.
“Well, there’s statues like that all over the country. All over the world, in fact. That old Sam told me that every hundred years, all those horses and riders of metal and stone come alive!” Daddy strengthened his voice a notch on the last word. Velvet stirred in his arms. “Those horses go leapin’ off their pedestals down into the streets. You can hear them clip-cloppin’ and clatterin’ ‘round town carrying their ghostly riders on a search and quest for each other to make an army. Fight their old battles and smell the gunsmoke one more time. Sam told me they go gallopin’ all Halloween night. ‘I seen ‘em wid me own eyes,’ he said, ‘back in 18 and 63, in the time of the turr’ble war. I was nought but five year old,‘ Sam told me, but...“ Daddy paused for effect and Mr. Beeler squeezed Aunt Bevy’s hand. “Came the dawn,” he whispered, “the statues were back on their blocks of stone, each and every one, nothin’ to show for the gallivantin’ but the mud on the horses’ hooves.”
Jimmy broke the stillness after the story. “Say, Dad, this is 1963.”
“Oh gracious,” said Miss Lillian.
“This is the year they ride.” Robin’s voice was creepy.
“Halloween,” said Dad. He glanced at the wall calendar then slid a sly gaze over to me and said, “Thursday night.”
“Now that I’d like to see,” said Mr. Culpepper as my dad got up and hurried off to the kitchen. Robin’s mom’s eyes smiled over the rim of her coffee cup at the sight of the little kids’ ooglie-booglies.
“Hey Buddy!” Dad hollered from the kitchen. “Turn off all the lights in there!” Which I did, of course and Miss Lillian said, “Oh my!” as a glowing face floated towards us. “Robin,” said my dad, kind of panting, “here’s your present. Sorry we didn’t wrap it -- man, this thing is heavy!”
“Jeepers!” she exclaimed like she’d never gotten a giant jack o’ lantern for a birthday present.
Right then, I was so glad Dad was my dad, even when, later on, he and I had to go calm Larry’s nightmares. On the morning after Halloween, Dad got us all up out of bed before school so he could pile us into the stationwagon and take us over to where I did all my crying. He showed us the hooves of General Jackson’s horse. It was impressive even though I pretty much guessed that he’d driven by the courthouse in the middle of the night after he got off work just so he could muddy up the statue. I put my hand in my dad’s rough hand. I felt sure that he was himself again.
A couple weeks later, right after Clark’s eighth birthday, when Jimmy and I came home from school, Dad told us we’d both gotten mail. The person I would be two weeks in the future might have told the person I was right then that the scrawled postcard and the letter were warning bells, but of course, she couldn’t do that.
November 15, 1963,
Fort Hood, Texas
Dear Jimmy, I bet you’re surprised to hear from me. I went and joined the Army. It was real tough at first, but no tougher than my old man. I hope you aren’t too lonesome without your mom. I know about that. I gotta go, but maybe you’d like to write me sometime? No one else does. Did you hear that the president’s coming here to Texas next week? Yours truly,
Private Richard D. Scudder,
United States Army
The smeared-pencil return address on my letter said it was from – Janice? From my old school in the country? She wrote it on notebook paper and she drew an angel in the corner. A pretty crummy one, too.
November 16, 1963
How are you? I am fine. Some of us read in the Kansas City paper that a lady named Dorothy Cathcart died last summer. A bunch of kids didn’t remember you but I did. I wanted to tell you that’s really awful about your mom and I hope you’re okay.
Me and my folks, we drive by the house where you used to live sometimes and there’s a mean, wild goat there eating the weeds. It won’t let anyone catch it, my dad says. Write me sometime.
(I sat behind you in Mrs. Cameron’s class, remember?)
Sure, I remembered. It was kind of a nice surprise that she remembered me. I figured that Dad would want to know about Blue Top, so I read him Janice’s letter. Maybe later, I’d get out the pink stationery and tell her about our first Thanksgiving without Mama.
Aunt Bevy had already called me two times to talk about our plans. “I’ll be over there bright and early Thursday morning, me and a fat bird and all the other fixin’s. We’ll stick him in your oven, Carmen, then we’ll work on everything else. I’ll bring a couple of pumpkin pies from the bakery and just not tell anyone they’re storebought, okay?”
“I can make pumpkin pie,” I blurted into the phone. “I watched Mama do it a hundred times. She used to let me roll out the crust.”
“Are you sure?” Aunt Bevy sounded doubtful.
“Sure I’m sure.” Kind of a little white lie, but it was important, wasn’t it, to have homemade pies for Thanksgiving?
Now it was five days away and the entire idea of Thanksgiving, along with the worst, most horrible cold ever made me homesick for Mama and sick enough to be home. Or else I would have been at school on that Friday afternoon, on the 22nd of November, when the words SPECIAL BULLETIN flashed white on the dark television screen. Then Walter Cronkite said, so it had to be true, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died...”
Daddy stood watching, slump-shouldered in the center of the room. “I swear, if that ain’t the last blasted
straw that broke the camel,” he said, “I don’t know what.”
Aunt Bevy and Mr. Beeler came to our house on Monday to watch President Kennedy’s funeral. I blew my nose and studied the way her black veil made shadow-slashes across the First Lady’s face.
“There’s General Ike,” said Daddy, pointing at one of the sad old men on the television, come to the President Kennedy’s funeral.
“You mean President Eisenhower?” asked Jimmy.
“Yup,” said Daddy. “And that there’s Harry Truman. I was out in the South Pacific, I remember clear as day, when he became president, when ol’ Frank Roosevelt passed on in 1945. Shoot, Jimmy, he’d been president since I was a kid your age. Truman was his V. P. so he had to take over. Told everybody he felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen down on him.”
Huh? I leaned in closer to the screen.
“I’ll bet,” said Mr. Beeler, “that President Johnson feels just like that right now.”
Oh my goodness. “That’s him!” I cried.
“Didn’t I just say?” Daddy took a swig of his Dr. Pepper.
“No – I mean, yes. He talked to me!”
“Nuh UH!” said Clark.
“Who?” asked Jimmy. “President Truman? In person?”
“Just a few weeks ago, up by the statue on the Square. He was real nice to me.” I told them a little bit about the bad day I had that day. “He told me not to give up and to do my best.” Dad bit his lip and shook his head at me.
I’d met a genuine president and didn’t even know it. His hankie was folded up in my underwear drawer this very minute. The corners of my mouth curved up a bit when I imagined Mr. Truman cheering up Mrs. Kennedy like he did me.
“There’s a story to tell your grandchildren,” said Aunt Bevy.
“Not havin’ any,” I told her. “Oh, look at John-John!” Mrs. Kennedy had her little son salute his dad’s casket passing by. Poor baby.
Mr. Beeler pulled a hankie out of his pocket, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “It’s his third birthday today,” he said. “Just imagine.”
Was President Kennedy just now joining the beginners’ class up there? Seeing his little baby who died and greeting the Alabama Sunday School girls? Meeting Mama? She wouldn’t even be bashful because, after all, this was heaven. I could imagine her meeting Cleopatra or comforting the president. ‘Look down there in Independence. I used to live with those people. I suppose they’re going to be getting ready for Thanksgiving now.”
By Thanksgiving Eve, I was seriously pooped. Even baby Velvet, in her basket, in the kitchen, had flour in her fuzzy hair and eyelashes. “Velvet’s finally asleep and the boys are watching TV. I’m gonna run over to Robin’s and see if I can borrow some, uh, celery,” I told Jimmy. “Keep an eye on things, will ya?”
“Okay,” he said, without looking at me.
“I got those stupid pumpkin pies in the oven, but I’ll be back way before they’re done, okay? Are you hearing me?”
Mr. Nose-in-his-Book gave me an exasperated look. “I said okay.”
Really, I wanted to get out of our kitchen and go tell Robin about almost putting chili powder instead of cinnamon into the pie batter. Hardly any time at all had gone be, it seemed like to me. I was just helping Robin polish her mom’s drinking glasses while we talked about the next book Mr. Fisher wanted us to read: The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Just the title made lonely, windy-looking pictures in my head. “It sounds even better than A Tale of Two Cities.”
“I hope the ending won’t be as sad,” said Robin.
Her mom came into the kitchen just then. “Carmen? I didn’t know you were here. Who’s --?”she was asking me when we heard Clark and Jimmy shouting. “Carmie! Where are you! Come home quick! Car - men! The house is burning!”