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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

Bee Baxter Meyer
13625 Southwest 79 Court
Miami, Florida 33158


LET BIRDIES IN THEIR NEST AGREE

 

As dogs go, Laddie wasn't worth having an ice pick rammed into my throat: it was the princple of the thing. My problem was how much farther down I could continue to sink into the slush of the melting snow behind the back door of our Dell's Cafe, so that I'd remain below the lethal point of the pick held so menacingly above me.

This was a snap point. I screamed one word, "Mama!" My brother Dick glanced toward the door, moving the pick just enough in this distraction to allow me to dare another scream. Simultaneous with the door slam, Dick backed away and tried to hide the pick between his scruffy mittens.

Mama's eyes were cool on both of us. "Give me that," she said, one hand out to Dick. "Get up quickly, Beatie," she said to me. Now I could allow myself the luxury of sniffling. And accusing. "He kicked Laddie." Dick's voice chorused with mine, "She kicked me."

"You both need a whipping," Mama said, "But I haven't got time. Or the strength. Ruben! she called.

At the summons to Papa and his pants strap, Dick and I ran. When in doubt, Papa didn't play favorites.

I didn't know Dick's refuge, but I always ran up the hill to the house where I could lock the door to the toilet. When I was sure I hadn't been followed, I could come out and tried to whistle for Laddie so quietly that I wouldn't alert Dick to my whereabouts.

This time I was lucky. Laddie was already at the front door, furtive, woebegone and bedraggled. Dick said all Laddie needed was a damned good haircut so he wouldn't sweep up so much filth. Knowing my brother's attitude toward Laddie, I didn't think Dick would stop with just a haircut. Visions of my dirty Laddie, blood streaming from a slit in his throat, brought me to instant tears. "Oh, Laddie," I sobbed, picked him up and carried him into the house. Now the front of my winter coat was as filthy as the back. "Oh, Laddie." I cried, sitting on the floor holding and rocking him. Caught up in my own drama, I chose to ignore how badly he smelled. Rotten, in fact. He must have been rolling in fish heads again behind the butcher shop.

Charlie's Butcher Shop was next door to our restaurant and its backyard was heaven to Dell Rapids' cats, dogs and rats.

Papa swore their steaks were so tough they must have been sliced form very old, live cows who were backed up to the doorway for the carving rite.

Late one afternoon some customers came into our care and ordered four T-bones. Papa sent me over to Charlie's for them, while he set the table in one of the booths. We had just remodeled the cafe, painting the dimpled tin ceiling and walls and putting up four booths for real 1925 elegance. Mama made the gray sateen curtains and put a pink silk shaded lamp on each gleaming white table top. Now and then some of the more courageous guests would draw the curtains. Whenever possible, Dick and I would stand on tiptoes in the next booth trying to hear any action between giggles.

The day of the T-bones when I brought the steaks, Mama dropped them into two big skillets, salted and peppered them, friend them deep brown on both sides and arranged each on on its thick, white, oval shaped serving dish, garnished with a mound of country fries and a couple slices of sweet pickle.

By the time I was bringing in the side dishes of canned peas, the diners --- and I use the word very loosely -- were trying to cut into their steaks, roaring with laughter of disbelief at the muscular resistance they were meeting. With a whole steak dinner for 50, including home made pie and coffee, annoyance, amusement or both, came more often than walk-outs.

Mama came to the kitchen door and together we listened to the men laughing, this sound joined in minutes by a strange, rasping kind of noise. First there was the sound of a single rythm of sawing, then the others took up the sound and rythm until the whole book shook and the curtains swayed. "Hurry. Go see what they're doing," Mama whispered urgently.

"Oh, Mama." I was weak with my own giggles when I came back. "They're all trying to sharpen their knives on the edge of the table."

Just then as if on cue, as a shriek arose, "I missed," a big, greasy T-bone came flying through the curtains of the booth and plunged in a heavy skid to the floor in front of us.

The sheepish young farmer responsible for the flight, came out of the booth, picked up the steak and carried it back cradled in both hands. Seeing us watching him, he ducked his head, all sober faced now and said, "Sorry, Ma'am," to Mama.

Sure they finished the steaks. Every last bite. Men were really men in those days.

The more I inhaled, the more I was convinced that Laddie must have rolled in fish heads. Charlie's helper always beheaded the bullheads before gutting them for sale. Pale, white, thick necked bullheads were our finest and almost only catch from the Sioux River, which moved sluggishly at the edge of town to tive us our swimming hole in Dell's park. A deep dive from the board farther out in the river was guaranteed to give any diver a muddy mustache at each plunge.

But that was clean summer swimming compared to the time of Spring floods, when no matter how warm it got, we weren't allowed into the river where the bloated hogs and cattle free floated with other debris.

Sometimes after the first winter thaw and before Spring flood, Dick and I would go down to the river to fish, carrying chunks of fat bacon for bait. In the early cold with no fish biting, we'd build a fire and dangle bacon on green sticks, cramming the smoky hot bits into our mouths with our greasy, mittened hands. I'd rather do that any day than catch bullheads. They could ram you clean through your sneakers.

There were days I thought very seriously about bathing Laddie. This was one. He really stunk. But I'd have to heat water and carry the wash-tub outside, downstairs from the backroom. That's where Mama kept the gas stove she used to heat our bathwater. She'd pour it over us into the washtub at least once a week. This room wasn't heated and it wasn't a real kitchen. Mama did all our cooking down at the cafe. But we called it a kitchen anyway. Mama had made a dining room out of the room that came with a kitchen sink in it, because this room had a bay window looking over a fine, big apple tree. Up in the crotch of that tree was where I did most of my reading.

Putting our dining room furniture in a room meant to be a kitchen, when there wasn't any kitchen to cook foods to serve at that dining room table doesn't make much sense now that I think about it. But it was a wonderful big table for doing homework and family poker games when the relatives came.

Instead of bathing him and wash-tub water and water lugging, I decided that if I'd rub Laddie, the smell would go away. So I rubbed and patted him gently and spoke to him with love and pretty soon he stopped shivering and both of us, dirty, smelling and loving, each in his own way, grubby winter coat, were happy for awhile together.

My brother Dick didn't hate Laddie all the time. Just when I was around. I kind of knew that but refused to know I knew. Without Laddie I'd have had less reason to beat up on my brother, two and a half years younger, shorter, prettier and thinner. There would have been absolutely no forgiveness even though I was a girl. I'd been trying to get at Dick since I lost my only-child position to the new baby brother. We were the only children and Dick was my primary target.

But there was one day I thought I had cornered him for good. My appendix was holy ground. I had gone through a few bouts of acute appendicitis from the time I was eleven. At the first sign of pain, Mama would drop anything she was doing. Papa or anybody had to take over the cafe kitchen and Mama would chop ice and fill packs around the clock, running the hill dozens of times to fetch hot broth, hot tea and toast.

Mama was no Jewish chicken soup mother. Her incantations were made to hot tea. Strong, hot black tea. For colds, tea, hot milk and honey. For fevers, tea, sugar and dried raspberries from the drug store, to bring on a sweat. For rainy afternoon tears and loneliness, hot sweet tea and fresh lemon, to go with love and a couple of Hershey kisses and Mama-stories to make us laugh.

And for chest colds, between great gulps of hot tea, milk and honey, hot mustard plasters. Mama stirred dry mustard and flour to a heavy paste with boiling water and spread it between thin layers of old sheets on our chests first. When the burning grew unbearable and our screams so frenzied that even Mama took pity, she peeled off the plaster, sprinkled talcum powder on the raw, reddend flesh, pulled down our flannel nightgowns and turned us over for the same treatment on our backs.

Years later I asked Mama if she really thought mustard plasters helped colds all that much, as much as they burned. She grinned. "Like a hammer, maybe," she said. "Like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. It feels so good when you stop. Didn't you always feel better when I took the plasters off?"

On this day, Dick and I began fighting in the upstairs bedrooms. He was supposed to but wouldn't, pick up his own room. As Mama-surrogate, I felt myself responsible for seeing he did. Naturally the more vehemently I demanded the more noisily he resisted. We went at each other constantly like lemmings to the sea. First with words. Then with whatever instruments were handy. Today's arsenal was hairbrushes. Mine, of celluloid, broke quickly. His of wood remained intact. There was only one thing I could do. Retreat. I rushed down the stairs slipped on the last one and plunged forward.

"Oh, God, " I groaned. "My appendix."

And having fallen appendix side up, I stayed that way, repeating over and over in a soft, failing, tiny voice, "My appendix. You hit me. On my appendix. Oh, God. My appendix."

Still carefully out of my range upstairs, Dick could neither see nor hear me. But frightened by the quiet after all the name calling and noisy battering, he peered down then gingerly descended a step or two.

I weakened my strong voice to a dying whisper. "Oh, God," I prayed. "Help me. My appendix. Busted." And in a slightly stronger tone, "Get Mama."

That's all the impetus Dick needed. Screaming, "Mama, Mama, hurry, Mama!" he rushed out the front door, past the sister he had wounded unto death.

Now I had a few minutes to prepare myself before Mama's arrival on scene. Carefully I bubbled spit out of the corner of my half open mouth, attempting to keep it flowing like life itself would be seen to be flowing out of my round, fat little body.

I heard Mama's quick steps, the door burst open. By now I had closed my eyes and composed myself for death. My hands, at the approximate mount of my appendix, now and again clenched in my death throes and limply flattened. My spit bubbled. My eyes fluttered.

It was quiet. Much too quiet. But I didn't dare to look upward. I heard Mama panting, and Dick crying, "I didn't meant to kill her, Mama. Honest, Mama. I didn't mean to."

Then there were footsteps and the sound of running water. Suddenly I gasped and flared open my eyes. Mama was standing over me with the big water pitcher. The water was freezing cold as she poured it all over me -- head, appendix to toes. Her blue eyes were as chilly as the water bath. She choked, I thought with concern. Later I realized she was battling to keep in her wild laughter.

"And that's your ice pack, daughter," she said. "Now get up and apologize to your brother."

Let it be at least said for Dick that he had the decency not to wait.

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