In which Old Yeller goes too far, Dad goes nuts,
and we go back to the past.
Jimmy was on the front porch holding Velvet in his arms. “I called the fire department already!” he yelled. “Where were you? You said you’d be right back! I called up Dad at his job.”
“Those dumb pies started burning and smoking and I couldn’t put’em out! And I burned my finger.”
“Oh, don’t be such a baby! Is everybody out safe?” I hollered back as Robin and I ran into the house. Mrs. Culpepper followed hard after us, shouting about baking soda, yanking down and stomping on a fiery windowshade. I was pouring water into the fire flickering out of the wastebasket while Robin flung water on anything that smoked. We heard the siren and the bells.
Firemen yelled at us to get out of their way.
Chunks of yellow light appeared up and down our dark street as neighbors opened their doors to see the excitement. Hardly a half hour later, the firemen were rolling up their hoses. Our kitchen was black, and Mama’s soda straw castle was a soggy, trampled tangle on the living room floor.
The Monroe ladies had wrapped quilts around the boys. Our stationwagon came careening through the confusion. Dad jumped out and stalked over to take wriggling, fussing Velvet out of Mr. Herman’s arms. One of the sooty-faced firemen asked Dad, “You the owner? It was just a kitchen fire that got out of hand...”
Dad just nodded, goggling at our dripping, smoky house. I couldn’t believe it either. Mrs. Culpepper’s tightly folded arms could not hold in all of the opinions that started spurting out of her. “Mr. Cathcart, you’ll pardon me for saying so, but I’ve looked the other way, knowing these children were over here by themselves, night after night with no one but a girl to look after them, but I thought she was pretty responsible even though she was only thirteen.” She flared at me.
“I was only gone a few minutes,” I put in. “It could happen to anyone!” I hoped Dad would believe that.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid me.
“I’ll deal with my own daughter,” said Dad. “Now, ma’am, I thank you for helping us the way you have but that doesn’t give you leave to find fault.”
“I was determined to mind my own business,” said Robin’s mom. “I’ve got half a mind to contact the authorities.”
“You’ll what?” Dad’s voice sounded dangerous.
Robin’s flustered-looking mom clasped her hands together. She talked like she was trying to calm herself down and Daddy too. “Now there’s no need to take that tone, Mr. Cathcart. I’m just saying that there are agencies to help people like you. A foster home for the younger ones, temporarily, perhaps.”
“Jan!” Mr. Culpepper grabbed his wife’s arm. “Now you’re going too far.”
She shook him off. “I know you’ve had a tragedy, but someone’s got to look after these children properly!”
“Stop saying that!” I shouted, hardly hearing Robin’s “Mom! Be quiet!”
Dad snapped at me to be quiet and he raisevoice to Mrs. Culpepper.
“We’re getting along all right! What are you saying – a foster home! You’re gonna sic the government on me and my family?”
Mr. Culpepper’s deep voice chimed in again, “Now we’re all tired –”
“Everybody be quiet!” said Darren.
“Everyone’s getting all worked up,” said Mr. Herman, but Dad and Mrs. Culpepper just went on getting madder and more upset.
“You’re gonna have the government take away my children?” Dad made his voice low again. I’d never seen Dad so mad and that’s saying something. The Monroe ladies raised their hands to their worried faces.
“I never suggested any such thing. I only have these children’s best interests at heart,” said Mrs. Culpepper. “They all could have been burnt alive and be as dead as their poor mother –”
“Why, you harpy!” Dad exploded.
“– and if it wasn’t for me –”
“Jan, shut up!” Mr. Culpepper shouted at Robin’s mom and sparks flew out of her eyes. “Don’t you talk to me like that!”
Robin and Darren looked angry, sad, and scared. Dad smacked his hand down through the air like he was shooing everybody away. “Nuts to this!” he growled, and turned on his heel, snapping his fingers at me.
“Carmen, you come in the house with me and help get some things together. Jimmy, don’t just stand there with your mouth open. Get your brothers in the car. Put the back seat down so’s you can all spread out.“ He pushed his hand through his wild hair.
Miss Effie said, “Now, Mr. Cathcart, you’re all upset.”
“We’ll just bring over some mops and buckets,” said Miss Lillian.
“You don’t want to be runnin’ off,” said Robin’s dad.
“No back talk,” Dad interrupted Jimmy and me both before we could even ask where in the Sam Hill
Daddy thought we were going. Old Mr. Herman took a couple of steps up our front walk and said to Dad’s back, “Now, Gene, where you goin’ this time of night?”
He and Mr. Culpepper and the Monroe ladies all seemed to be talking at once.
“Mr. Cathcart, there’s no need of taking these children –”
“You can’t –”
I had a quick glimpse of Robin’s shocked face as I ran after Dad into the house.
“Daddy, you’re being crazy!” He flashed a hard look at the mashed straw castle before he stomped on it and kicked an overturned chair. He stalked through the smelly house, listing things for him and me to grab. “I’ll get some blankets. There’re those loaves of bread and some baloney and didn’t we get a sack of oranges at the store? Bottles and diapers for the baby. Don’t forget that half jug of milk.”
He clattered down the stairs with pillowcases full of clothes and blankets.
“Come on,” he said. “Grab that radio over there, Carmen. Let’s beat it out of here before God only knows who comes breaking down the door.”
He tossed the pillowcases through the Rambler’s back window and I hardly had my car door shut when we were down the driveway and into the street with a bounce. Jimmy and Clark and I looked back at our worried friends and neighbors standing about in the chilly evening, watching us go.
I wedged the grocery sacks full of supplies onto the floor between my feet. Velvet, wriggling on Jimmy’s lap, was the only one of us who didn’t ask Dad again and again where we were going, but he only had three answers: “You’ll see. Everything’s going to be fine. Just go to sleep.” None of them were any good.
He hushed Georgie who’d begun crying and said, “Harry, you and Larry settle him down and take a nap or something.”
“We’re hungry, Daddy.”
“When are we going home?”
“Are you going to give Carmen a spanking for leaving us by ourselves?”
I bit my lip.
“Just curl up and have a little sleep,” said Dad. “We’ll stop in a while.”
Velvet’s baby pigeon sounds got fussier as the dark spaces between lit-up businesses and dark houses got wider and wider and we were on the highway heading east out of town. Jimmy, Clark and I exchanged worried looks. Every now and then the flare of a stranger’s headlights splashed across Dad’s thrust-out lower lip, his pointy nose, and the pale knuckles of his two big hands on the steering wheel. In the blackness below the bill of his ball cap, Dad’s eyes were twin sparks aimed straight down the long road.
I looked at the glowing numbers that showed how far we’d gone. Ten miles ticked away before I had the nerve to ask Dad, “Is this kind of like when you ran away to be a hobo?”
“Carmen, this isn’t anything at all like that.”
“Because if it is –”
“I was a kid then and on my own. Now I have all of you and I’m not going to lose you.”
“But Dad, you’re not –”
“No more. Just be quiet now and try to keep the baby calmed down.”
I must have slept somehow or how else could I have woken up the next morning, all shivering cold even if someone had put a blanket over me? My legs ached. When I tried to stretch, my feet pushed against something hard. Where was I anyway? I opened my eyes and saw a steering wheel in front of my face. It was a shocker to sit up and find out I had the car to myself. I turned my head to look out the window.
If I’d found myself parked by myself in a rusted Rambler in front of a pointy-towered palace, I don’t think I could have been much more surprised. What I did see was a tall, dingy farmhouse and a couple of trees. Behind them was a brown hill which I knew perfectly well would be covered in cornflowers sometime next summer. Dad had driven us all the way to Blue Top.
At the sound of steps rustling through dry leaves, I spun around to see a long hairy face with large light eyes separated by a white stripe. I jumped back, bumped my head and covered a scream with my hand. The pupils in its eyes were shaped like rectangles and, as the head moved from side to side, they both looked in at me through the driver’s side window. “Gertie? Is that you?”
“Baa-aah,” our old goat answered as a sudden knocking behind me whirled me around again the other way. Jimmy was staring at me too.
“What time is it?” I yawned and rolled down the window.
Jimmy checked his Timex. “Almost seven.”
A lot of families’ moms were sliding fat turkeys into their ovens. They’d be reminding their children to be thankful for their blessings. I was grateful that my pies didn’t completely burn our house down, but I’d wait and see what was going to happen next before I turned loose any more gratitude.
I opened the car door and climbed out. My blue coat bunched around yesterday’s wrinkled clothes. All of me was crumpled. I pushed up my glasses and smoothed my hair away from my face as I stared open-mouthed at our old house. “Why did Dad bring us here?”
“Come on inside and get warm,” Jimmy said. “He sent me out to get you. He’s making breakfast.”
My stiff legs carried me across the yard, up three steps to the slanting porch and into the house. It still had some furniture: a long table flanked by two scuffed-up church pews. Georgie sat on an old telephone book on one of them. Larry, Harry, and Clark sat on the other, looking like they’d used an eggbeater to comb their sticking-up hair. It seemed to match their bewildered brains, judging by their talk and the looks on their faces. “I’m going to be a fireman when I grow up,” said Harry.
A kerosene lamp stood on a cupboard by the window. I flicked the light switch by the door.
“No electricity,” said Clark. Dad had filled our old cooler with most of what there was in the refrigerator back home, then stopped along the way for gas, ice, and a jug of cider. I walked over to the sink in the corner of the room.
“I already tried,” said Jimmy. No water.
Velvet waved both of her arms at me from her baby-carrier, which sat in the center of the table. She kicked her legs. Dad, who was still wearing his ball cap and coveralls from work last night, stood at the iron cookstove frying bacon and eggs. A dented coffee pot was percolating so I figured that he’d gotten water from the pump outside. Breakfast smells, at least, were something to be thankful for.
“Good morning,” he told me. “I would’ve had you come inside, Buddy, but you were sleeping so sound there in the car I didn’t want to wake you.” He didn’t exactly seem crazy but, just the same, it was going to take me awhile to figure out how our family was in the Thanksgiving episode of the Beverly Hillbillies in the Twilight Zone. Why’d I have to show Dad Janice’s letter about this place being empty? And why had I ever missed this place?
Dad draped an arm around my shoulders. “Hungry?”
“I guess so.”
“How ‘bout opening up that package of paper plates?” For now, I gave myself up to breakfast. Time enough later for questions. He knew we had to go back to school on Monday. We knew that he had to go to work.
“Dad, are we going to go back home soon?” Clark asked.
“Yeah, Dad,” said Jimmy. “Are we?”
“If it’s not too burnt up.” Larry flicked his eyes at me. “Our room didn’t get on fire anyway.”
“Yeah, Daddy,” Harry added, with an enormous yawn, “I don’t like sleeping in the car.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Dad. “Here’s nice.”
“No, it’s not,” said Jimmy. “There’s not even anything to read. Why are we even here? And what about Aunt Bevy? I bet she’s there right now, wondering where we are.”
That really got my imagination going, thinking of the look on Aunt Bevy’s face when she and her turkey got a load of our empty, smoky-smelling house. “There’s no television,” said Larry. “ I want to watch cartoons.”
“Me too,” said Harry.
Me too, I thought. Dad was really worrying me. After breakfast, he sat back on one tall-backed church bench and propped a foot on the other. He kept a pleasant look pasted on his face as he bounced Velvet on his knee. She wore one of Georgie’s knitted babysuits. She laughed and made spit bubbles.
I went to explore the rest of the house. Echoes and boys trailed me up the narrow stairs. The house seemed so different than when we lived here not even a year ago. Of course, what wasn’t different now? We didn’t belong here any more. This cold, musty place wasn’t home.
An empty bird nest rested in the corner of the boys’ old room. In the room that’d been mine, I stood where I’d daydreamed away a million hours, in front of a tall cobwebbed window. My hand floated up so I used my finger to draw in the dust a picture of a long-haired girl. She seemed to be walking up the brown hill beyond the window.
Jimmy, then Clark, and soon the three littler boys were all around me, looking in the closet, flicking dead flies and spiders off the windowsills. Georgie took hold of my hand and Jimmy asked me what we were going to do.
I didn’t know.
“It’s like we’re marooned,” said Jimmy, looking around. Clark told Georgie, “You were a baby when we moved here.”
Harry said he remembered.
“He’s still a baby,” Larry teased.
“Nuh UH!” Georgie retorted.
“Let’s go downstairs and see what Daddy’s up to,” I said, hoping we’d find him up and loading the Rambler for our return trip. But no, both of Dad’s feet were propped on the bench now. He was singing Row, row, row your boat to baby Velvet on his lap. Gently down the stream...
“How long are we going to stay here, Dad?” Clark asked. “‘Cause we gotta go to school. And you gotta go to work.” It turned out that Dad didn’t much care if he went to work or if we went to school on Monday.
“But I’ll miss my friends,” Clark said. “I miss them already.”
“We’re going to learn take-away next week, Dad,” Harry added. “And on Monday, Mrs. Culpepper was going to read us a new story.”
“Don’t talk to me about her,” said Dad.
“Why not?” Larry asked.
“I like her!” said Harry. “And anyway, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Take me!” said Georgie, looking up at me.
I’d been avoiding thinking about the cold splintery privy out back. It had been an adventure two years ago when we moved here, but now, just thinking about it made me need to do the very last thing on earth I wanted to do which was to pee.
Okay. Fine. “Come on, you guys.“
Harry put his hand in mine. “Will you wait outside while I go?”
Larry said, “I’m scared of that goat.”
All of us but Velvet, who happened to be wearing her personal bathroom, braved the outhouse. Like it or not, we’d gone back in time for Thanksgiving and it was all my fault, mine and those stupid pies.
Georgie held on to me while I helped him with his zipper and snaps. I smoothed his rough hair and shielded him from the wind sifting through the board walls. He asked me, “Is Daddy sad?”
“Yeah, he’s real sad.”
“He misses Mama.”
“We all do, but maybe it’s harder for Daddy ‘cause they’d been friends the longest, huh?”
“Yeah.” Tears welled up in Georgie’s blue eyes.
Helping a nervous little kid go potty in a drafty privy in November really helped you to appreciate people who lived in the olden days before some brilliant person invented indoor plumbing. And something about the way Georgie clung to me while I did up his pants made me better appreciate my baby brother.
“They had indoor toilets on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, two thousand years before Jesus was born, just for you to know,” Jimmy informed me when I told him how thankful I would be from now on for being able to go to a nice, regular bathroom. As far as I was concerned, up until there were indoor potties and Thomas Edison’s electric light bulbs, the whole history of mankind was a big bunch of crummy camping.
“How’d you know that?” I asked Jimmy.
“I just do,” he shrugged his shoulders which were hunched against the autumn wind. His hands were fisted deep in his pockets.
I reached out to punch his arm. “Are you like a genius?”
“Maybe.” A sliver of slyness curved a corner of his mouth.
“Well, at least you’re more fun as a know-it-all than the Gloomy Gus like you’ve been being.”
“You’re one to talk.”
Georgie and I set out tramping through the dried hollyhocks and grasses.
I turned back to Jimmy.
“I was wondering,” he said, frowning at me. “Are you ever afraid? I mean, do you worry if we start being the way we used to be – not sad all the time? More normal like? That it will be like we’re forgetting about Mom?”
Georgie looked up at to see what my answer would be because it was a real good question.
“Yeah,” I said, as I shivered in the cold wind. “But if Mom is watching over us, and she is, I think she’d be unhappy to look down from heaven and see us being sad forever, don’t you imagine?”
Jimmy nodded then he tugged at the outhouse door. “She’d be surprised to look down and find us here, I’ll bet.”
Georgie and I petted Gertie who seemed awfully happy to have company for the holidays. Afterwards, Clark and the twins ran ahead of us to the top of the hill behind the house. They turned somersaults in the chilly wind and the dry grass. They lay down flat and rolled themselves like pencils down the hill, making themselves dizzy, but Georgie held tight to my hand. He used his other hand to point at a noisy crow, then a long V of geese. After they disappeared in the high clouds, we could still hear them honking to each other.
I searched the sky and found a patch of the palest blue. I wondered, are you up there, Mama? Boy, how I’d love to call you up and hear what you’d say about this, about us being here like this, because anyway, I can’t remember the sound of your voice. It’s like you’re already fading. It’s as if every day we live, we’re moving down a road, leaving you further behind, like we’re turning our backs on you, like we didn’t care, but we do, Mama. We really do, but now Dad’s falling apart.
If only I could hand that magic phone to him. Mama would know how to help Dad be steady.
I had to think of something.
Did he really think that Robin’s mom could break up our family worse than we already were? Would she try? “That’ll be the day,” I muttered. We might be a bizwang, messed-up family, but we were mine. Georgie was holding my hand tightly. “Come on, kiddo, we’d better go back inside. It’s cold out here!”
“Look,” he said, pointing a chubby finger at our stationwagon. Jimmy was sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Let’s go see where Jimmy’s going,” I said. “Maybe he’ll take us home, huh?”
Jimmy was frowning out the windshield, stretching to touch the pedals with the toes of his tennis shoes as he turned the steering wheel this way and that. “I’m really worried about Dad,” he said, keeping his eyes on his imaginary road.
“Darn you, Carmen, why did you have to stay next door all that time? What were you doing over there anyway?” He scowled at me and picked at the bandage on his burnt finger.
“I said I was sorry a million times and why didn’t you keep an eye on things like I asked you?“
Jimmy gave the inside of the car door a gloomy sort of kick and changed the subject. “We gotta go home. Do you think you could drive this thing?”
That’d give Walter Cronkite some news: me at the wheel, Dad in the back with the baby and the boys. Dad came out on the broken-down porch. “What are you kids doing out there?” He pointed to his wristwatch. “This thing says it’s lunchtime.”
We bowed our heads and closed our eyes so Dad could say grace for our Thanksgiving dinner of baloney sandwiches, cider, and oranges. Through a curtain of eyelashes, I saw Dad’s folded hands tremble and a muscle twitch in his red-stubbled cheek as Velvet went on baby-talking to herself.
“Dear Father in Heaven, I want to thank you for Velvet, Georgie, Harry, Larry, Clark, Jimmy, Carmen, and please tell their mother, there with you in heaven, that... that we all miss her.”
We stole glances when Daddy paused. Clark bit his lip.
“Thank you, Lord, for getting us here safe, sound and all together. We humbly ask your help in keeping us that way and we sure thank you for this Thanksgiving Dinner. Amen.” Dad looked at us and tears glittered in his red-rimmed eyes. He cleared his throat and said, “Now all of you say Amen too.”
Daddy gave Velvet her bottle. “Now eat up, everybody. And Carmen, I’ll thank you and Jimmy to quit looking at me like I’ve snapped my cap and lost every marble in my head. Sit up and eat your lunch.”
“Aunt Bevy was going to make us a turkey,” said Clark. “I’ll bet she’s really worried about us.” He talked the way people talk to kidnappers on TV.
Dad bowed his head and covered his eyes with the hand he wasn’t using to hold Velvet’s bottle. He muttered, “Bevy knows enough to know that if you all are with me, you’re just fine. You all worry too much.”
Then he looked up and squared his shoulders. His voice and his eyes went hard. “You know, I didn’t go off to war and fight for no government that would up and take a man’s children away from him.”
Clark’s eyes widened over the edge of his paper cup of cider. Jimmy and I exchanged alarmed glances.
“That woman’s a schoolteacher.” Dad bit out the words. “The authorities – the social workers, like she said – they’ll listen to her!”
“But Dad, Robin’s mom was probably upset about stuff that had nothing to do with us and she just got carried away. And that fire could happen to anybody!” I cried.
“And this isn’t even our house anymore, Daddy.”
“Don’t argue with me, Harry, or any of you.”
Dad’s voice was tired and soft again. “I know we can’t stay here. I just had to, you know, get away from there, from that hard-luck joint.”
“But Dad,” I burst out, “we’re the part of the house that’s in trouble!”
“Yeah, Dad,” Clark put in. “And this place doesn’t look very lucky either.” He waved his hand in the direction of the drafty, spidery old rooms. “Besides, at home we have friends.”
“And,” Jimmy’s voice was even and mild, “if we stay here and you get fired and we miss a bunch of school, then people really will think you can’t take care of us.” Through his thick, slippy glasses, he returned Dad’s stony stare, flint for squint. “Maybe we can find us a grownup to help Carmen cook and look after us. I’ll get a paper route or something to help pay.”
Dad was in no mood for reasonableness. He rolled right over our arguments. “You kids are too young to look after yourselves. Your Aunt Bevy has all she can do to manage her own life, getting her outfits to match her toenail polish. I just don’t see how we can live without...” Dad bowed his head again and Clark put his arms around him.
“That battle-axe was right. I haven’t been taking good care of you – not while I’ve had to earn a living at the same time. We may just have to make some adjustments, that’s all.”
“But, Dad,” I interrupted.
Slowly, Dad stood and handed Velvet to me so he could go look out the window in the front door. “We have to cut our coat to fit the cloth. Maybe...” His voice trailed off and he wrapped his big hand around the china doorknob.
“Aren’t you going to even eat dinner?” I asked.
“I’m not hungry. I’m just going to go for a little walk. Don’t you kids worry so much, for crying out loud.” He pulled the door shut and even Velvet watched him go past the window and out into the yard. What the heck were we going to do? If Dad was as hopeless as he looked, us Cathcarts really were doomed.
Clark slid down in his chair and frowned across the table at me. “How come Darren’s mom’s so mad about us being by ourselves anyway, Carmen? We were doing okay enough.“ Then he lowered his eyes kind of shifty-like and mumbled, “Until those stupid pies caught on fire.”
Before I could say anything, Harry piped up, “If only Daddy didn’t have to go to work.”
“Yeah,” Larry interrupted. “He has to go away before we even get home from school.”
Georgie frowned over the top of his cup. He lowered it and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and said, “He needs to stay home with us!”
I cocked my head to one side and looked at my baby brother. “Boy, for a dopey little kid, that’s a pretty good idea!”
“I’m not dopey!”
“If Dad could do his job when we were at school,” I said, ”we could be together at night.”
“But,” Jimmy asked, “what about Georgie and the baby? In the daytime?”
“Well, what if...?” I took a bite of my sandwich and tried to think of a way to fix things.
”I like Mr. Herman,” said Georgie. “He gives me candy.”
Clark rolled his eyes. “So?”
“So,” I said, “maybe Georgie’s the real genius of the family.” Georgie’s dirty face brightened up as he stuck his tongue out at Clark. “We’ll ask Mr. Herman and the Monroe ladies and anybody else we can think of if they can help us find people to take turns babysitting while Dad’s at work in the daytime.”
Harry and Larry traded glances, then nodded at me. We’d make adjustments, like Dad said, like giving up art class. I clenched my jaw, flipped a towel onto my shoulder, and picked up the baby.
“Let’s go talk to Daddy,” said Clark.
“Yeah,” I agreed as I patted Velvet’s back.
“Maybe then,” Jimmy added, “we can get away from this rotten little house on the prairie.”
Velvet brrupped. Giggling brothers surrounded us, tucking in their chins, swallowing, and broadcasting fine burps of their own.
“Watch ’em, Georgie. This is something big boys gotta know,” I said, gathering up Velvet’s blankets. “Come on, you guys. Finish eating, then get your coats. Let’s go tell Dad it’s time to go home.”
Outside, brown leaves whirled around us in frosty gusts of air. We heard rackety crows and bluejays as we crunched through dry leaves and weeds, me with the baby, Jimmy carrying Georgie piggy-back, squinting our eyes against the windy light, looking for Dad.
“There he is!” Larry called out.
I watched Larry, Jimmy, and Georgie, following after Harry and Clark, speeding toward Dad and calling to him. I saw Dad, up on the crest of the hill, turn and stretch out his arms to the boys, and it was the weirdest thing. I was standing there, beside the old house, letting it protect Velvet and me from the wind, and I looked up at my family, what was left of it. And it sort of seemed like I was seeing them for the first time. There they all were, silhouetted against the clear sky over Blue Top.
I liked them.