Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Monty

Donna Campbell Smith
Monty

He was the epitome of the word mutt. A medium sized dog covered with beige, curly hair. He had a long tail that wagged incessantly. He took up at our next-door neighbor’s house and they generously “gave” him to me. Mama let me keep him, but he had to stay outdoors. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was in school and I think old enough to have read Lassie Come Home. I was in love with this dog. For some inconceivable reason I named him Monty.

He was just like the dogs I’d read about in books. Monty followed me everywhere I went whether I was on foot or my bicycle. But the thing that clenched our relationship and told me this dog truly did love me was this: Monty was always sitting at the corner of our block waiting for me to come home from school. Now, that is love. That is also when I began to know that animals had a gift humans did not have. He knew the time and didn’t even have a clock.

Monty was my introduction to responsibility. I had to feed him myself and make sure he always had clean water. I took him down to the police station and paid his dog tax and got him his rabies shot. Daddy attached Monty’s rabies tag to his collar with needle nose pliers. The sound of the tag jingling around Monty’s neck was a joyous sound as he bounced along beside me while we played in the back yard.
On the corner, the same corner where Monty always sat waiting for me to get home from school, lived the Jones’s. I am changing the names to protect their esteemed reputations. They are dead now anyway, but Jones was not their real names. Mr. Jones was a State Senator and hardly ever home. Mrs. Jones was an unfriendly woman who wore her hair in a bun and fussed at we children if we ran through her yard on the way to the vacant lot across the street. Mama, nor any other grownups I knew, ever said they did not like Mrs. Jones, but they didn’t. You could tell.

One day I walked home from school and Monty was not waiting for me. I ran home to see if he’d forgotten the time and maybe was in the back yard. He wasn’t. I called and called. I rode my bike all over the neighborhood calling, “Monty!”
I couldn’t find him, and none of my friends had seen him anywhere since we left for school that morning. Mama said, “maybe he went back to where he came from.”
When the Chief of Police knocked on the front door we were not surprised or alarmed. “Poss” Brown was my third cousin’s grandfather and sometimes she came over to play. I thought, “He must think Patricia is here.”

Mama answered the door. And that is how I learned Old Lady Bailey had caught Monty peeing in her begonias and called the police station.

“Officer Davenport didn’t know it was Donna Lee’s dog. It didn’t have on a collar. She said it was a stray and wanted it shot. Of course, when I heard about it, I knew it was your dog. I am so sorry. I remember Donna Lee brought the dog down to get its rabies shot.”

I cried of course. And my Daddy never could stand to see me cry. He was furious. Mama was mad, too, but of course there wasn’t anything anyone could do. Old Lady Jones was the Senator’s wife after all. I think that was the first time I’d known anyone to tell a lie, a grownup to boot. She knew very well whose dog Monty was. She saw him wait for me right in front of her house every afternoon. And she had to have removed his collar before the police came, and then told them he was a stray.

Here I am almost 62 years old. I am surprised that this story popped right to the surface of my consciousness while I was participating in a memoir writing workshop. And it bothers me I don’t feel the forgiveness toward Mrs. Jones I should feel. I know Monty probably should not have been allowed to run free, especially while I was not home. But back then folks didn’t tie up or fence in their pets unless they were hunting dogs. I suppose peeing on the neighbor’s flowers was not a good thing either. When I think about it really hard I believe maybe it isn’t Mrs. Jones I can’t forgive. Maybe it’s me, because I let Monty down. I didn’t meet my responsibility toward him and maybe I blame myself that he was shot. Then again, maybe Mrs. Jones was just a mean ole biddy to have lied and had my dog shot.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Warm Arms, Cold Heart

“What do you mean, what makes me tick?” Mary stirred the coals in the campfire.

“I don’t know. I just have a hard time reading you. I mean, one minute you are telling me you are happy living alone, free to go and come as you please. Then the next minute you are saying how lonely you are. I don’t know what you want? Where do you want us to go? What do you expect out of me?”

“Expect? Nothing. What do you want me to expect? Here we are, on a mountaintop, cooking our supper on an open fire with a sky full of stars. What more can I say? I love being here with you. I love making love with you. But, I’m not expecting anything anymore. Been there, done that.

“Besides, isn’t that what men want? Benefits without commitment? Tell me, what makes you tick? Is it the idea of not getting to make the choice whether to love me or leave me?” Mary looked at Kevin, tried to see his eyes, but he was looking off in the distance, avoiding her scrutiny. So, there they were, both trying to read the other without being read. They were at a Mexican stand-off. She arranged the cast iron pot over the coals, added the freeze-dried meat, an envelope of onion soup and fresh new potatoes and young carrots from her own garden. The one she tilled, planted, weeded, and nurtured alone.

“I can’t believe you think that after all this time,” Kevin finally said. He was looking into her eyes this time, and she let him try and find what was hiding there deep behind the wall she had so carefully build. A brick wall she would never let another tear down. No matter how tempting it was, nor how sincere the man sounded. No, she’d trusted her life to the love of her life, and look where it had gotten her. She could play the game as good as anyone. “Warm arms tonight, cold heart tomorrow.” What made her tick? Experience, that’s what.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Small Town Politics

The mayor, Woody Woodchuck, stood outside the mercantile and took a long puff on his corncob pipe. “Yep, its going to be a fine day,” he said to the standers-by.

Freddie Fox ignored the mayor. He didn’t think much of Mr. Woodchuck and wondered why they needed a mayor anyway. Sugar Hill had a town manager and that seemed enough leadership for one place. Of course, those silly mice could care less and Jeremy Whitetail had his own agenda. As long as he could jump fences and eat with the cows that lived the life of Riley, what did he care about city politics? The cows had a farmer from outside come in, cut down trees, dig up the land – and you’d think Mayor “Chuckie” would see the danger in that – and plant grass, so they didn’t have to hardly move from one spot to eat.

Meanwhile, the deer families jumped right in and ate that processed food, getting fat as the cows while everyone else had to work for their food. Freddie Fox had to sneak around all over town to find his food, and then catch it! Good thing he was so smart or he’d be digging for grubs like Blackie over in Ridgewood. Bears really were not that smart, ya know? Like ole Blackie climbing up the hollow tree on the corner of Hill and Vine to get honey out of the hive inside. Those bees wrapped him up. His face was swollen for days after that. Ouch! Not Freddie. He would have waited until after dark, snuck in there while the bees were sleeping and got his sweets. Didn’t matter, her didn’t like sweets anyway, but if he did he’d be too smart to let himself get stung all over like that.

Now, the beavers down at Wisteria Pond, those guys were smart. They had a system, ya know? Buddy Beaver was the city manger. He oversaw the building of the dam that gave them Wisteria Pond. Not only did the whole town have a water source, but a fine recreational place for those who wanted such things. The Pond had also brought in more citizens and food. Freddie loved going down for a nice fish or frog supper when he was in the mood for fast food. That sweet couple, the Herons, moved in first, and then the Otters and the whole tribe of Melton Muskrats had come and set up housekeeping on the north shore. Built a whole development of homes just under the bank next to the cypress trees.

No, the mayor was just a figurehead, as they say. All he was good for was riding in his pink Buick whenever they had a parade. That and hollering, “Danger!” in the annoying squeaky voice of his whenever the farmer’s old beat up truck came bouncing down the tractor path, as if everyone in town didn’t hear it themselves. Chuckie was as useless as a three-dollar bill. In fact, Freddie thought ole Chuck might actually make fine eating this winter when things got tight. Mmm, mmm, all that fat and tender meat. Yep, he just might make a fine meal.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shine

Through the blue night haze she felt her way down the hill. She knew the way like the back of her hand, even without the moon lighting her way. Old John’s licker still was across the ridge, and she could smell the mash cooking in the crisp predawn air. Soon she’d be able to wash away the pain and maybe survive one more day.

She stopped to catch her breath, leaning on an old gnarly oak tree. Its roots clung to the side of the steep ridge. She was almost to the top and then her walk would be down hill. Then she’d get her breathing back and only have to be careful her knees didn’t give out as she negotiated the rocks and tree roots. A sharp left at the twin pines, then right at the spring. That spring water was what made John’s shine better than most. The crawl through the blackberry thicket was the last leg of the trip. She emerged covered with bloody scratches where the brambles tried their best to hold her back, keep her from deadening the awful pain. She laid flat on the cool earth and pulled herself forward with her fingers dug deep in the dirt. Once out from under their thorns she waited, and listened.

A wren fussed at her. She could hear a jet plane overhead. But that was all. The woods were silent, and safe. She stood up and began walking again. When she reached the hollow tree she picked up a piece of deadfall limb. She struck the tree three times and waited, struck three more times and waited, finally, two.

Soon the pain would be gone. Soon. She listened, and like an echo she heard three, three, two. She stepped past the tree, ducked under the mountain laurel, and to the left she walked into a small clearing. John greeted her with a suffocating hug. She gave him his payment in a bed of pine boughs. He smelled of sour mash and smoke. It didn’t matter. Soon that memory like the pain would be gone.

Pint Mason jar in one hand she steadied herself. The front of her dress was black from crawling back through the berry thicket. She had to rest. She sat down on a rock and opened the jar. She drank deeply, like it was the spring water that fed the still. The shine burned all the way down but she hardly noticed. What she did notice was the pain melting away. Just a little more and it would all be gone. She lay down on the rock, the sun was up and wiggling its way through the trees. Her grip on the glass jar eased. She didn’t hear the tinkle as a hundred tiny pieces scattered across the rock. The sun sparkled in every shard, and the pain went away.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Digging a Hole

The shovel crunched through the hard packed sandy soil. It had been near drought all summer. Cathy tossed the dirt aside on the pile that she’d accumulated next to the hole. Silly wasn’t a big dog, at least it didn’t seem so while she was alive. Cathy felt stupid crying over a mongrel that she’d not even known but a few weeks.

The dog just showed up on the back porch steps one morning. It was thin and wiry, black, without a speck of white anywhere. Cathy gave her some left over scrambled eggs and filled a bucket with water. She named her Silly because the dog was just that, silly. Her rear end wiggled constantly and she would bark at Cathy when she came outside to hang the clothes or put out the trash as if to say, “Stop that work and play with me.”

Cathy was seventy-five years old, to damn old to be out in the back yard playing with a dog, but she’d throw a stick and Silly would run like hell and bring it back to her, then sit there wagging that tail, begging to do it again. Cathy was also to damn old to be digging a hole in ninety-eight degree weather. The tears and sweat mingled on her cheeks. She had to stop and sit down a spell, maybe go get a drink of water. She looked at the bundle of dog wrapped in a Carolina Tarheels throw she’d kept on her sofa for those chilly winter nights when her feet got cold. Silly had claimed that throw as her own, dragging it off the sofa and curling up on it to sleep at night. Now it served as a shroud. Cathy figured she had a lot more digging to do before Silly would fit. Right now she felt a little lightheaded. Maybe she should call John, the handyman who came to help with odd jobs, to come help dig this hole. Yes, she’d get up and go in the house and give John a call, as soon as this dizzy spell passed.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Road Trip

It had been over a year since they’d taken a long weekend to the mountains. Kathy had insisted on this one. She hoped getting away alone would set the stag for talking about the stresses in their marriage. She hoped Paul would open up to her and let her in on why he had distanced himself from her.

Paul was taking the turns a little faster than she felt was safe. She clinched the edge of her seat and braced herself through every turn.

“Paul, you’re scaring me,” she finally said.

Paul didn’t answer, but slowed down. The vista below was beautiful. Kathy relaxed and enjoyed the view.

“I packed a picnic. Your favorites: fried chicken, three-bean salad and some deviled eggs. Oh, and I made brownies,” Kathy said.

“Fine.”

“I was thinking we could stop at one of the overlooks and have lunch,” she could feel the tension radiate from Paul. Why? What was on his mind that they couldn’t talk? They had always talked until the past few months. Now it was like living with a granite statue. She could not figure it out, and Paul was not telling her. But she knew something big was at the root of it. She had the nagging suspicion Paul was having an affair. But other than him not talking she could not find any sure signs. There was no lipstick on the collar, no mysterious phone calls and no unexplained time away from home. Kathy was stumped. Paul went to work in the morning, came home and retreated behind the newspaper until dinner. After dinner they silently watched TV and went to bed.

That was the part that hurt the most. Going to bed and having Paul turn his back to her.

“How about here?” Kathy pointed to a roadside picnic table that overlooked Maggie Valley. They were on top of Beech Mountain. The fall color splashed red, orange and yellow like a huge abstract painting in the slopes below.

Paul pulled the car over onto the gravel parking area and stopped. He sighed, got out and stretched his back. Then he opened the trunk and got out the cooler. Kathy took out he picnic basket and set it on the table. She spread a red and white-checkered tablecloth and began taking out containers of food from the cooler. All the while she attended to setting up the perfect picnic Paul paced back and forth at the edge of the overlook.

Kathy glance at him as she put the finishing touches on her creative spread, complete with a small vase of silk flowers in the center of the table. Martha Stewart would be proud of her. She watched Paul gaze out across the scramble of rocks, trees and the river that wound its way through it all at the bottom. It was a long way down, Kathy thought.

“Okay, honey. Lunch is being served.”

Paul didn’t answer.

“Paul? Ready to eat?”

“I’m not hungry,” he said.
Kathy walked over to her husband of twenty-six years. She put her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder.

“Baby, talk to me,” she said.

She felt his arms tighten around her, and he kissed her hard. Paul turned suddenly, bringing her easily around, then he thrust her away from him. Kathy stumped back and tripped over a stone that marked the edge of the overlook. She was falling and reached out to Paul.

Paul stepped back away from her. The last thing she saw as she tumbled over the edge was the look of relief on Paul’s face, like he’d finished a distasteful task.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Found Money

Mary Lou’s feet ached and she could feel her back trying to cramp. It had been a long time since she’d had to work on her feet all day. It had taken a while for her to come to terms with being a single mom since Jack died. Even the money from selling the house had not lasted very long. Now, here she was, three years later working at Tom Peele’s Dry Cleaners. She didn’t even get a lunch hour, but had to eat her sandwich on a fifteen-minute break.

Her task today was checking through the drop-off to make sure the pockets were empty, mark stains, and take off any safety pins or jewelry. She was always surprised at things she’d find in pockets. You’d think it would occur to folks to empty them before dropping them off at the cleaners.

Dirty tissues, candy, cigarettes, lipsticks, ballpoint pins, baby pacifiers, and once she found a thong in a man’s suit jacket pocket. That’s one of many reasons she wore latex gloves to do this distasteful job. Most of what she found went into the trash bin, on occasion an item of jewelry was put into an envelope and saved to be returned with the cleaned clothes to the owner.

It was a hot and solitary job. She worked alone, passing the clothes on to the next station to go through the cleaning process. Most of the time she didn’t even bother to stop and eat her ham and cheese sandwich.

It was thirty minutes to closing time. Her feet screamed to go home and be propped up on the recliner footrest. As soon as she picked up the gray, pinstriped suit coat she felt the weight of something in the breast pocket. She slipped her hand in and pulled out an envelope, it was about half an inch thick. Mary Lou’s heart picked up a rapid cadence. Before she even opened the envelope she knew what was inside. She just didn’t know how much. Mary Lou glanced around quickly to see if anyone was looking her way. No. She was, as usual, alone. She turned her back to the floor, opened it and nearly gasped out loud. It was all one hundred dollar bills. It had to be thousands of dollars. Mary Lou though of the three weeks unpaid rent, the gas bill, Johnny needed braces and she didn’t know how long before her old car was going to die.

She slipped the envelop into her jeans pocket. Why would anyone have this much money in their pocket, and forget and leave it there, and then send their suit to the dry cleaners? Reality raised its annoying head. Of course the owner of the suit would realize what he’s done and come to claim his cash. She had to turn it in to Mr. Peele. Ha, she laughed. Would he give the money back? Not likely, and if the owner came looking for his money, which of course he would, would Mr Peele accuse her of stealing it? Maybe she should keep it and look to see who brought in the suit. She could call him and tell him to come pick it up. Mary Lou cleaned her area and took the trash bin out back and emptied it in the dumpster.

Or, she could claim ignorance and tell them maybe it got put out with the trash. But, that would be stealing. She couldn’t live with herself. On the other hand, what if it was drug money, or worse yet, hit money. She could be saving a life by keeping it. Or lose her own.

Mary Lou signed her time sheet and mumbled good night to Mr. Peele. She would have to sleep on it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cemetery

The Methodist Church had the oldest and biggest cemetery in town. Most of my ancestors are buried there, and one green parrot. The parrot belonged to my Aunt Gussie who lived to be ninety-nine, but the parrot out lived her by some years. When it died my grandfather sneaked in the night and buried it next to Aunt Gussie.

The Methodist Church Cemetery was not a scary place. It surrounded the church, wrapping it around the back and both sides like the loving arms of Jesus. We children played there between Sunday School and Church, and I walked there with Mama while she pointed out various relatives’ graves, explaining they were not really there, but in heaven. We read the dates and epitaphs, picked violets and then walked back home.

The cemetery was the best fun at the Annual Easter Egg Hunt the church sponsored on Easter Mondays, which is a holiday in North Carolina. All we children brought our baskets and dyed hard-boiled eggs. We turned the eggs over to the Sunday School teachers to hide, while we were shuffled off to a room in the education building. Then we were called out to find the eggs. I wasn’t very good at that, nor did I like to eat hard-boiled eggs. But the tombstones made wonderful hiding places for the colored eggs and I did find a few.

Once we found the eggs we were treated to a traditional “picnic” which in addition to the eggs included crackers, dill pickles, and Coco Cola. I don’t know why that particular menu, but it is what we were served year after year. No sweets were served at all.

Vacation Bible School was another event held by the Methodist Church, and again the cemetery was our playground. In fact, one of the teachers’ helpers, a teenaged girl, would gather a group of us and have us sit down on a low concrete wall that surrounded a family plot to tell us stories during recess. She told us ghost stories right there in the churchyard at Bible School. Not a single person thought anything of that, which as I think back seems more than a little strange. It became the highlight of the week’s activities, that story time, with us sitting at the foot of cousin Claudia’s final resting place.

Some might think all this playing in the cemetery as disrespectful, but I think it was a good thing. I think the people resting there, or looking down from heaven, got a kick out of it. It’s much better than the town’s children thinking it a gruesome place, but rather a place where our ancestors still seemed part of the church family both in worship and the fun.

The Wizard of Peachtree Bend

He was the wizard of Peachtree Bend. At least that’s what his friends called him. He could tell you facts about anything that came up in conversation, and that irritated them, his friends. It didn’t matter if you were talking about the weird bird that had come to Bonnie Sue’s birdfeeder, or what was under the hood of Jimmy Johnson’s race car, Harold could go on and on with little known facts on the subjects. Most of the gang believed he was making it up.

Harold, the wizard, also loved to look at the stars. That is why he often brought his telescope to the park at night. He didn’t look like a wizard, but wore the garb of a biker: leather jacket, dew rag, jeans, and black boots. He strapped the telescope to the back of his bike, and after dark when most of the people who crowded the small square during the day had moved down to the riverfront clubs and night life, he drove to the square and set up the scope. The park had a statue of a figure on a horse. Harold knew it was General Braxton E. Fiddler, a local hero from the War Between the States. Not many people had ever heard of him. They had to read the sign at the base to learn he’d been killed in a small skirmish which had taken place on the very ground that was now the park. A park where shoppers sat down to rest and an old homeless guy played his saxophone for small change. The saxophone player used some of the change to buy peanuts that he shared with the pigeons that pooped on General Fiddler’s hat.

But at night Harold could look at the stars in peace. He didn’t have to impress the General with his knowledge of planets and constellations, and the pigeons had gone to nearby trees to roost for the night. No, there was no distractions, no one to guess how damn lonely he was since Jeanine left him twenty-five years ago. Sometimes he thought of the blood that had been spilled on the ground where he stood, peering though the lenses that brought the universe so close it seemed he could reach out and touch the moon and the stars. Sometimes he wished he’d been there, lying at the feet of General Fiddler, watching the life ooze out of him. How much blood did it take before there was not enough to sustain life? He used to know. He’d have to look that up so if it were to come up in conversation he could tell his friends, and impress them with his knowledge.