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

Bee Meyer
13625 Southwest 79th Court
Miami, Florida 33158

ONE CONNECTICUT SUMMER

 

It began a long time before the hot summer afternoon that Uncle Ted and I were down in his cellar, opening a barrel of clams. There was Uncle Ted, his blue work shirt open at the throat, his little seaman's cap on his head. Uncle Ted was once a sailor before he settled down in Haven's Point with Uncle Jo to go fishing. "This is the life for a man," he'd say, "Fishing and making a living at the same time."

I guess he made a pretty good living because Aunt Jo had the prettiest house in the village. It was very small, even to me then and it was made for children to play in. Even the staircase had narrow little treads, so we could walk the stairs as grownups did without hanging onto a railing, or putting two feet solidly on each stair before we could step down on the next. At the bottom of the staircase Aunt Jo had put what she called a Dutch Door -- so we couldn't go up the stairs if she didn't want us to, but we could look upstairs and that was just as good.

Aunt Jo could play music on the door like a drummer. She'd make her hands into fists and hit the door, "Rum-tiddy-rum-tiddy-rum," and she'd say, "The flag is marching by," and then we would all have to march around the parlor and the first one to lose step would be out. I liked being out. Because then I coiuld sit in front of the special little shelves and look at the tiny dogs and cats and pincushions and bells. There were lots of bells which Aunt Jo would let us tinkle sometimes.

That parlor. Everything had a special place. It was all small and magic. The pump organ in the corner with its high shelves and the open on the rack [opening on the back?].

And the round table with the fringed cloth. Once my little brother Dick pulled on the
cloth and everything fell off the table. The pink lamp on the table broke into pieces and I thought Aunt Jo was going to cry she looked so sad but she said, "Never mind, Dickie boy, we will build a little pink shell house with the pieces," and she said it very fast because the big fat cat tears were pouring down Dick's face and he was rubbing his eyes. He was afaid he would never be allowed to come back to Aunt Jo's house again to hear her play drum music on the door.

But we all picked up the pieces and built a little house on the floor. Then Aunt Jo turned over Uncle Ted's big chair and we made believe we were in an ocean liner and could see the little pink house far away on the short. We waved to the little pink house and Aunt Jo waved back and after awhile we forgot about Dick breaking the lamp and we all had cookies and milk before we went home.

Then our mother said, "You have been eating between meals again. I do wish Aunt Jo would stop feeding you." And both Dick and I said very quickly, "But we didn't eat much, Mama, we really didn't."

Aunt Jo was very pretty. She wasn't much taller than we were because she didn't have to bend down very far to touch us. She was always touching us. She would hold a pinch of Dick's cheek bnetween her fingers and say, "There is no silk like this silk." Or she would run her hand over my head and say, "You are exactly like a small plush pup, you are," and I would make a barking sound and she woiuld laugh. She like to run her hands over fresh bread that she baked, too. She used to say she could feel how it tasted just as she could see how it tasted. We didn't understand that. The only way we know how anything tasted was to eat it.

My mother said Aunt Jo dressed like a gypsy. I never saw a gypsy in Haven's Point. The first time I ever say gypsies was near New Haven where they had come to Savin's Rock. I walked up to a gypsy woman standing there to look at her. She poked at my stomach and turned to my mother, "How many little babies gonna be in there some day?" she asked. A little grown girl with only half a dress on came up to my mother and said, "Gimme a penny I shimmy for you." Mama made us walk away fast and let us walk the whole length of the pier to make up for not staying with the gypsies longer.

But I didn't think Aunt Jo looked like a gypsy. I always thought she looked like the picture of the humming bird in my first reader. It was so small you could hardly see it and our teacher told us that it moved its wings so fast you'd think they were standing perfectly still.

Aunt Jo's eyes were a golden color and they opened wide in her dark face. She wore big bright golden earrings like the color of her eyes. Her hair was black. I don't remember any highlights in it. Just black and very thick and she'd let it down for us so we could make it into pigtails. She she'd look like a little girl.

Uncle Ted would come into the house and laugh to see her, then he'd pick her up in his arms and \swing her high, the way he did to us and she would treat him with great dignity and say, "Uncle Ted, kindly put me down," and we would laugh to see how dignified she would become with her cheeks so flushed and her pigtails flyings. So Uncle Ted would put her down very solemly and say, "as you wish, Madam," then she woiuld pinch his cheeck, reaching up very high and say, "there's a good boy." It always seemed as if Uncle Ted had a little girl and it was Aunt Joa and Aunt Jo had a big boy like a son, and he was Uncle Ted. Because they didn't have any other children and that's the way they were.

When you tell a story our teacher points out in short-story class, when you tell a story you must make a structure. Then you must ask the narrative problem before the end of the beginning. But I don't know what the beginning was. And I don't know what the end of the beginning was. I only know that when Raphael Guadalla came to Haven's Point, it was the end of everything for me.

My mother had a little store right on the main street of the village. The post office was across the street with a grocery store attached to it. When Raphael Guadalla drove up with John Wrigley, who ran the ferry and had a care besides, I thought he was very handsome and I ran in to tell my mother that the man had come to work in Holden's grocery store.

Raphael Guadalla jumped down from the car and whirled his hat around his head. "Hello you in there," he called out. "I have come to work in your grocery store."

Mr. Holden came outside still with his butcher apron on. Raphael Guadalla pumped his hand up and down and finally Mr. Holden called for his wife and she came out, wiping her hands on her apron. She was always doing that, as if she had just washed her hands. When she saw Raphael Guadalla she threw her arms around him and he hugged her and Mr. Holden stood there and said, "Well, well."

My mother said that Raphael was Mr. Holden's wife's brother and that they had both come from New York and she was so lonesome she got her brother to come and work for Mr. Holden in the store. But my mother said there wasn't work enough for a flea which seemed pretty funny to me but that was the way my mother said it.

I went over to have a good look at Mr. Raphael Guadalla and he didn't look at all like Mrs. Holden. She was little and fat with a very bright red face and he was thin and dark with curly black hair. He had a guitar case slung over his shoiulder and he had a mustache, too. A long black mustache, very shiny. When I told my mother about it she said, "Hmph...wax." "Like the holiday candles, Mama," I asked and she said, "No, wax, but different."

In a couple of days everyboidy had a good look at Raphael Guadalla. My father didn't think much of him. Raphael just sat on the porch of the post office and played his guitar and all the summer boarders would come around to listen. They came to the village from my Uncle Zelick Samuel's boarding house which was up the road from the ferry and from Abram's boarding house, too. Once in a while someonw would come along and speak in Italian to Raphael. That what he said it was when I asked him. But it sounded like laughing in words, all soft, with music in it. After a little while, Dick and I forgot about Raphael and went back to Aunt Jo's, but she kep asking us about him. "What's he like?" And we'd tru to tell her about his guitar and the wax on his mustache and how he spoke this funny language and how he hadn't done a lick of work, his sister's husband said.

Aunt Jo said, "Talk, talk." ANd we said "That's what you asked us to do." And she said, "never mind, children," and then we played with the musical door but she didn't let us stay with her very long and we went home. We asked her to let us play with her hair but she didn't want to get it mussed up and when we left the house she was sitting in front of the parlor window, looking across the street at Ralph Guadalla playing his guitar.

Well, you know it is in the summer time when there's no school. You don't pace the days off one by one but they slide past you. It seems to me I can remember some days more vividly than others, in that summer when I was between the first and second grades. Mama carrying water from Villers well, so Dick and I could play in a washtub behind our store....Mama shining lamp chimneys early in the morning. Dick and I would wake to the soft sound of her cleaning rag buffing the glass when we'd come barefoot into the store to see her, feeling the clean grit of the sand she was using to sweep the floor, under our toes. Sitting on Verstrates front porch and eating onion sandwiches. I remember this place particularly because Mama took a picture of us with Dick's blond bangs down to his eyes and my face concentrated on the next bite. The whole thing is like a stereopticon picture to me, with Dick's face clear only because of that snapshot and Mama's face not clear at all except her very blue eyes and the way her crisp clean housedresses rustled at her work.

I don't remember when I began to notice how quiet Uncle Ted had become. I remember that he wasn't saying much and he was gone fishing a lot. And I remember that Mama was spending more time with us, playing more games with us. One day she even closed the store early and took us down to the river fishing. We didn't catch much. Dick caught an eel which we couldn't get off his line so we finally cut the line and threw it back with eel and hook and all, into the river.

At the beginning of when we weren't spending so much time with Aunt Jo I remember thinking only that maybe she was very busy or tired or the summer was too much for her -- that's what ladies were always saying that "the summer is too mjch" for somebody or other and that's why Mama tried to make things up to us.

But you know how it is. Sometimes consciousness is like the singing sound in the telephone poles. You don't know there's any sound to them until you put your head close up against them and it must be very quiet all around you. Then you hear the high, thin tone against your ears and pretty soon it begins to feel as though your'e carrying the tone in your own head and even when you're not staind gainst the pole you carry the sound with you. Knowing about Aunt Jo was like that, I think. First I didn't know and then I remember thinking I had known it from the very first minute I saw her look at Raphael Guadalla playing his guitar on Holden's porch.

People were talking. All kinds of people. Coming into Mama's store and leaning against the ice-cream tubs and laughing and talking. When Dick and I would come in, they'd say, "Sshh. The children," and then began saying what a hot summer it was and were we getting any fresh meat from the travelling butcher? Once I heard the words, "Positive disgrace," and once I heard, "Everybody knows but Ted."

It must have been August because the river was green and quiet at the edges and gthere weren't any more wild flowers. Dick and I had been looking for Ladies' Slippers even though we knew there weren't any more, but we were looking anyway. There's a twisty little road from the river, not where Mr. Wrigley drove his car from the ferry to the village. The road at the left went to Uncle Zelick's boarding house. Off that road there's a path that goes to the white birch forest. Maybe not a real forest, because the trees were so think but that's what we used to call it.

Dick and I were down on our hands and knees, holding a grasshopper so he'd make molasses, when we heard them. Aunt Jo's voice, high and excited and Raphael's voice, soft and rich and low.

Sometimes now when I hear the radio or TV suddenly and realise I've been letting it run without noticing it, I;m as surprised at finding music in the room as I was at hearing their voices. Yet, not surprised. You know what I mean. Maybe we had been listening to them ahile and hadn't realized what the words meant until we heard Aunt Jo say, "But darling," and then she laughed and Raphael laughed too. They were quiet awhile and she laughed again.

Dick looked at me and said, "That's Aunt Jo and where is she?" And I said, "I don't know. I want to go home." So we did.

Well, it's a funny thing to know everything and nothing. Just to hurt inside, with a lump in your throat worse than a fishbone. And Mama looking at you and saying, "What's the matter, baby?" and you not being able to say anything, not anything at all. Once Mama bought me a real gas balloon. I moored it next to my bed with a string of beads so I could wake in the morning and see it shining and straining up on its string next to me. But when I woke up it was all shriveled and ugly, lying in a heap next to the cold white beads. When I thought it was going to be beautiful forever. It was like that, what I felt about Aunt Jo.

But even worse that that was the way I felt about Uncle Ted. I was ashamed to look at him because I knew and everybody knew and he didn't know. That was the biggest shame.

I remember the Sunday afternoon Mama went riding with Max, from the Abram's boarding house and Dick and I had to sit in back of the car and watch the light through Max's big clean thin ears and I heard Mama say, "It's a shame, Max," and Max said, "Shh...the children." And I was thinking about Uncle Ted, how everybody was talking and saying, "Shh...the children." And Uncle Ted alone not knowing.

It wasn't that I didn't try to figure out how to tell him. But I couldn't. That was the hardest thing of all.

The afternoon Uncle Ted opened the barrel of clams, Dick and I were playing on the front porch. Dick was going, "Choo, choo," making the top of a bottle of Moxie skid across the splintery floor. I was just sitting there, watching him, every now and then saying, "Choo, choo," just to please him. Uncle Ted came by and said, "Hello, Be-at-trice." He always used my full name, deliberately changing the accent to make me laught. "Hello, Uncle Ted, " I said.

"Would you like to taste a good fresh clam?" he asked me. So I left Dick playing with the bottle cap and followed Ted into his cellar. It was cool and dark and quiet there and I sat down on a keg, while Uncle GTed took a scredriver and proddedn the barrel open.

"Never let anyone say your Uncle Ted didn't give you a treat," he said. Then he opened a big river clam and offered it to me. I didn't want to take it. I sat there and looked ant the clam and at Uncle Ted and gulped.

"You must taste it," he said. "It's very good."

Then I remembered the time Uncle Ted and Aunt Jo and some of us were in the kitchen and she had baked a wonderful pan of bread. Only it didn't look like any other breat I ever saw but it had sliced tomatoes and onions on top of it. Uncle ted had laughed at her, saying she woiuld make a little Dago out of me yet and then she had said without a smile on her face, "Go on my dear Beatie, you must taste it. It's very good."

They were the same words Uncle Ted was using, making me remember how long it had been since I had been with them together in their kitchen or in their house and how everyone knew except Uncle Ted.

His eyes were shining at me and the clam was open in his hand. "Go on," he said." I tased the clam. Then I began to cry. I cried very hard. And he laughed and said, "it's not that bad, Be-at-rice." I cried out and said, "It's very good," and I ran from the cellar as he stood there laughing at me.

He told my mother about it and she laughed too. But it wasn't the clam. The clam had nothing to do with it. I couldn't stand Uncle Ted not knowing.

It must have been the last week before school that I went down to the old coffin factory to sit awhile. There wasn't any factory there any more, except for the foundation. It was all grown over with grass and tall weeds. But the steps were still there and from them we could see the water rush with a wild swoop over the dam. So I went down there to sit and look at the water and that's where Unlce Ted found me.

I saw him first. I saw him coming up the path with his head down, his fishing rod training in the sand at his feet. Uncle Ted was always so careful of his rod, too. At first I though he was crying, because his shoulders were moving. When he looked up and saw me, though, he smiled. Then I knew he was alright.

He sat down next to me and put his arm around me. He pushed his cap back on his head so I could see the damp curls on his forehead and he said, "And how's my girl?"

I couoldn't help it. I leaned my head against his chest and cried. "Baby girl," he said, "Stop that." I couldn't stop, not right away. So he patted my shoulder and pretty soon I stopped, except for a fewhiccups.

"So it wasn't the clams," he said.

"No."

"What is it?"

"Nothing," I said. But he knew better.

He put his hand under my chin and tilted my face so I could look at him. He pushed my bangs away and dried my tears with his big handkerchief. Then he said, "No secrets now. Tell me."

"Everybody knows and you don't know," I said. "Everybody. Mama and Max and the Holdens and everybody but you. And when we come near them they all say,'Shh....the children.' And they don't think we know. But even Dick and I know. And you don't!"

I was afraid to look at him, he was so quiet. My head was hard against his chest and I could hear him breathing and the hard thump of his heart. He moved a lottle and took his knife ouit of his pocket. He reached for a stick near the stairs and began to whittle.

"What would you like? Would you like a whistle? Would you like a little walking stick?"

"I don't care."

"I'll make you a nice little walking stick," he said. "So when you and Dick walk by the river you can hold onto it and make believe you're a very old lady."

"I don't want to be an old lady," I cried. "I don't want to grow up."

I could feel he was smiling then, so I looked up.

"You'll grow up and you'll be a pretty girl and then some day you'll be an old lady too, and it will all come natural."

I thought he was laughing at me then so I didn't say anything.

"Beatrice," he said, "Do you remember the time when that little speckled dog the Vertrates had, got run over in the village?" I said "yes."

"Do you remember how we put a splint on his leg and after awhile he was good as new?"

"He only limped a little." I remembered.

"Yes. Only a little. But for awhile he was very sick, wasn't he?"

I said I thought so.

"But he got well, Uncle Ted said. "And pretty soon if you hadn't know he was run over, you would not even notice his limp."

I looked up [at] him and he was whittling my walking stick. He was making a curve at the top end and the splinters were falling like soft pieces of silk onto the sandy path.

"Then do you remember the Spring the baby robin fell near your store?"

"That was this Spring."

"It was a very sick little bird. And remember how we had to feed it tiny bits of food to help it eat? And do you remember how one day all of a sudden, it stood up on its skinny little legs and tried to fly?"

"It couldn't right away," I said.

"No of course not. But soon it did. And when it was all well it flew away by itself."

"Yes," I said.

"When human beings are sick," Uncle Ted said, "it doesn't always show on the outside. Sure, you can see them, when they're run over or when they have a cold or when they fall down and hurt themselves. But sometimes they can be sick inside."

"I have stomach aches," I said.

"Something like that. But even a stomach ache shows on your face a little. There are other kinds of sickness that don't show at all. Only in the eyes, if you love the person very much, can you see it. And sometimes not that, if she keeps her eyes turned away from you. But if you love somebody very much, you know."

"Is Aunt Jo sick?"

"I'd say yes," Uncle Ted said.

"What's the matter with her?"

Uncle Ted smiled a little. He was down to the point of the stick now, taking very small flicks at the wood with his jackknife. "Well," he said, "I''m a good deal older than Aunt Jo, you know."

"My father is older than my mother, I think."

"Yes. And sometimes when people are older, they forget a little how to play games."

"You play games with us."

"These are the games we play when we are small," Uncle Ted said. "But there are other games a young woman loves. Games of the eyes and the heart, too. Sometimes when you love somebody very much, you forget that being married should be a game and you stop making play with your eyes. Or with your words. You just feel the other one should know of the love and you are busy with other things, too. And then suddenly you find that the other one is playing her own game."

"Do you get sick then too?" I asked.

"A little. Just a little. But you are older, in your sickness and you say to yourself, this is only a game with her. It will pass. She will be well again."

Uncle Ted stopped whittling. "For awhile I thought he should be much sicker," he said. For a little while I thought he would be better dead."

I was afraid then. Uncle Ted's knife came down hard on the stick. Then he laughed. He handed the stick to me. "Try it for size," he said. I stood up and leaned against the stick.

"Do I look like an old lady now," I asked him.

He laughed. "Very much like. Now all you need is a fur coat and a shawl around your head."

"Will Aunt Jo have a walking stick and a fur coat when she is old?"

"Pray God she does," he answered. "And that I will be there to give them to her."

Uncle Ted stood up. I had never before realized how tall he was. I remember standing against him, looking up into his face to see his eyes so blue, his cap so far back on his head.

"We know this thing together," he said.

"May I tell Dick?"

"No, I think not. It is something between you and me. Just the two of us."

"But everybody else knows," I said. "Doesn't everybody else know that Aunt Jo is sick?"

"Even doctors don't agree on sickness sometimes," he said. "What they think they see is something different than what I see. This time I must be my own doctor. Come. We'll go home now."

We didn't talk much on the way home. But when Uncle Ted said good-bye, he leaned down and kissed me. "I will make you a promise," he said. "I will promise you Aunt Jo will be well again. Will that make you happy?"

"Yes," I said.

So you see. That's practically all there was to it. Except one thing more. It happened the next year. We had been in New Haven when my father could do his work as a pants cutter and Mama could stay home and take care of us. When summer came, Mama said we could go to Haven's Point and stay at Uncle Zelick's boarding house a few weeks and I was never so happy about anything.

While we were there, a note came from Uncle Ted and Aunt Jo. They called us up long distance at Uncle Zelick's. Aunt Jo was talking so fast and laughing so much, Mama could hardly hear her. "You must let them come to us," she said. "We're living up at Old Cove now and they must come and visit."

Uncle Ted called for us at the ferry landing at Old Cove, Dick and I. We had never been so far up the river. Aunt Jo was standing by the landing when we came to their house. They lived on a hill above the river, in a little grove of trees and a house that looked as though it had grown out of the pink granite. She was standing there with her black hair in pigtails the way she used to fix it for us and she was prettier than I had remembered her.

"All of you hello," she said. "And welcome to the new Thompson castle on the hill." We all laughed because the house was too small to be a castle and we knew she was playing queen again.

We walked up their hill, hand in hand, skipping and running in a hurry to be there. The house was the way we wanted it to be, small and fine with white curtains at the windows.

At the door Uncle Ted stopped. "it is the custom of the house," he said, "for the master to carry his guests inside."

He picked us up, one at a time and put us inside the door. Aunt Jo stood there in the sun, laughing at him. Finally he came to her. "You, Madam, are the last," he said.

Then he lifted her high into the air and her pigtails flew out and she kicked her feet out at him. "Put me down, put me down Uncle Ted," she said.

He put her down inside the door and she leaned against him a minute. He pulled her pigtails gently and said, "As you wish, madam." She leaned up and pinched him on the cheeks with both hands. "Thank you my darling," she said.

And I knew my Aunt Jo was well again.
 

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