Old Man Hillen

“Are you gonna pay for that gum?”

Phyllis and I turned to see Billy’s cheek bulging. His eyes got big and a stream of purple drool ran out of the corner of his mouth. The three of us stood horrified before Old Man Hillen, the proprietor of the Variety Store. It was obvious the sour old geezer took no prisoners where pilfering children were concerned.

“Spit it out.” Phyllis demanded, her face as hard as the old man’s. She hurriedly paid for our purchases as Billy and I beat her out the door. We knew there would be Hell to pay. Phyllis aligned herself with our parents and could be depended upon to report any infraction. This one was huge.

The situation was made more ominous since our business in the first place was the purchase of Mother’s birthday gift. The three of us had walked to the Variety Store after school. Mother was to pick us up. The wait seemed endless, knowing the catastrophe that was brewing.

“Billy Ray stole a piece of gum!” she exploded before she even got the car door shut. “Mr. Hillen made me pay for it!”

Mother was appalled. “Oh no. I hope you’re ashamed of yourself. I’m gonna have to tell your daddy about this.” A pall hung over us, dreading what was to come.

Justice was swift and sure. Daddy was enraged as he railed at Billy, before strapping him with his belt, then pausing before giving him a few more. Worse yet was the pronouncement that they’d be going back tomorrow for Billy to apologize and make it right. It was a terrible night at our house. No one escaped Daddy’s black mood.

Daddy was waiting for Billy when the bus ran, always dependable when punishment was due. He led the small boy into the Variety Store and announced to Mr. Hillen, “My son has something to say to you.”

Humiliated, Billy managed to stammer an apology.

Rather than accepting Billy’s apology, the hateful old man launched into a tirade against thieving kids and the way sorry parents were raising them. Daddy was infuriated and told him they’d made it right and he wasn’t listening to anymore of his mouth. They left. We never went back in that store.

A Hog a Day Part 15

 

Against his better judgment, when Billy was about eleven or twelve, Daddy relented and gave him permission to sit with his friend Kenny in church one Sunday.  He’d always had an iron-clad rule that we had to sit together as a family way up in front on the third pew, but was somehow, Billy convinced him he could handle the challenge that day.  Neither had reckoned with the devil super ball hiding in Billy’s pocket as he ecstatically took a seat next to his friend about five rows back.  All was well till that devil ball started sending psychic prompts a few minutes into the sermon.  Billy took it out, inspiring awe in Kenny.  They passed it silently between them a few times keeping their eyes straight ahead.  No one was the wiser.  Temptation got the better of Billy and he bounced the ball between his feet, catching it on the return.  There was a small plunk, but no great disturbance.  He was emboldened by success and had to try it again.  The slight plunk on the hardwood was noticeable, but since the boys kept their composure and stared straight ahead, the sermon continued.  It was going so well, Billy bounced it another time or two.  Of course, luck finally ran out and the hard rubber ball bounced and rolled down the slightly inclined pine floor, bumping a few supports and bouncing joyously along the way.  Daddy knew immediately who the culprit was, turned, and shot Billy the “look of death.”  Kenny, who enjoyed much more casual parenting struggled to stifle his hysteria.

That ball rolled and bounced, bounced and rolled.  The sound seemed deafening, though Brother Robert, the preacher, never faltered in his sermon.  As the ball neared the dais, he stepped down, and scooped up the ball mid-bounce.  I had to admire the smooth move.  I could see he had some natural athletic ability.  Without hesitation, he continued the sermon, walking in front of the dais and bouncing the ball.  Brother Robert held my attention as never before. Never missing a catch, he pocketed the little ball and went straight to altar call.  I truly prayed for Billy’s life.  I couldn’t imagine what his fate might be.  We finished church as always, filing out to greet the preacher at the door.

Surprisingly, Daddy didn’t kill Billy as I expected.  Maybe it tickled his funny bone, though he never let on.  The next Sunday, Billy was in his usual seat on the third row, right next to Daddy.  He never got his superball back.

 

A Hog a Day Part 14

Communion charmed me.  It pained me to see the perfect little glasses and morsels of wafer in the gleaming trays pass me by.  I suspect Mother’s thoughts weren’t sacred as she warned me off with dark looks and head shake.  It seemed wrong to waste communion on adults when those cups were obviously child-sized.  Glenda Parker boldly reached in and took two tiny cups right under her mother’s eye.  She slurped the juice from one cup, then poured the juice from the other back and forth a few times before spilling it.  Her mother sweetly wiped up the pew with a dainty hanky, never shooting her “the look.”  With my head bowed during prayer, I saw Glenda stack and restack those cups and slip them in and out of the little slots on the back of the pew in front of her while her mother piously bowed her head in prayer.  Why couldn’t God have given me to a good mother like that?

Baptism was even more interesting.  The first baptism I witnessed took place in a pond.  The congregation gathered around as the preacher led the candidates in one by one and dipped them backwards into murky water.  I yearned to get in that line, but had been warned not to move from Mother’s side.  The next baptism took place in our church’s new sanctuary.  The curtains behind the choir loft opened to reveal a glass-fronted tank before a lovely mural of the Jordan River.  The preacher stepped  in and spoke a few words before assisting Miss Flora Mae down the steps into the tank.  Miss Flora Mae’s full-skirted white skirt ballooned on the surface of the water as she descended, revealing chubby legs and white panties, an unexpected thrill for me and other less-holy onlookers.  A few even snickered as Miss Flora Mae struggled to recover her dignity.

By the next baptism, the baptistry’s glass front had been painted.

 

 

 

A Hog a Day Part 13

With eons of sermons stretching out before me, life looked grim.  Occasionally, there was a bright spot.  Sometimes the preacher told a joke.   I truly enjoyed church music, especially if it was something lively, like “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the hymn list.  I sung along enthusically, though lots of the words did’t make sense.  For the life of me, I couldn’t fathom why we sang about laundry, as in “Bringing in the Sheets (Sheaves).” There was also a Christmas carol about laundry.  “While shepherds washed their socks by night (watched their flocks by night.)  I thought it odd, but so much adults did seemed odd.

One special Sunday, God had a startling surprise in store for me.  Mrs. Simmons, the pianist, brought her brother Eddie, a handsome young man, along to play the organ.  His boogie-woogie style hymns were a vast improvement over sedate hymns.  I could see some of the old ladies exchanging shocked looks, but  I was entranced.  I was practically bouncing in the pew when suddenly he dropped to the floor in a seizure.  Mrs. Simmons shrieked and rushed to his side.  He rallied and they trooped out, along with the rest of her family.  I was so jealous.  The preacher made an anemic attempt to salvage the service, but his flock was clearly anxious to get out and enjoy a good gossip.  I genuinely enjoyed church that day.

 

A Hog a Day Part 6

We were sitting around the fire one Saturday night in Mr. Grady Rose’s sitting room.  The only light came from the fire.  All the little kids lounged on the floor in front of the fire, pleasantly tired from an afternoon of play with full bellies. Mr. Grady looked like a gray-haired bear in overalls, not so tall, as burly and powerful. I loved hearing him talk about raising his boys. “I had to kill a hog a day to feed them boys. I told ‘em lot’s of times, ‘Them that don’t work, don’t eat.’ I always go to bed real early and am up by four. That’s the way I was raised. I can’t sleep past four, even in the dead of winter even if I ain’t got a bunch of cows to milk. I used to be out milking while Bessie cooked breakfast. Now I just sit and watch her. Anyhow, one morning up in January, them boys decided they wadn’t getting up. Bessie called ‘em once and they didn’t make a peep. I give ‘em just a little bit and hollered for ‘em to get up. Then I headed out to milk, ‘spectin’ to be right behind me when I noticed, they ain” got up yet.

I hollered up the stairs for ’em. One of ‘em got smart and hollered back ‘We ain’t getting up yet.  Ain’t no use in gittin’up at four just to sit around waitin’ for daylight.’

That got me hot.  I ain’t raising no slackers.  I went straight out to the barn and come back with the plow lines.  I brung ’em back in there and gave one or two licks over them boy’s quilts and they come flying out of that bed just a hollerin’.  All four of ’em was fightin’ and pullin’ each other back trying to git outta my way.   I didn’t have no way of knowing then on account of all the racket, but the deputy sheriff had just raised his hand to knock on the door.  Them four boys busted that front door down and gave him a good stompin’, trying to git away.

He grabbed up his hat, took off runnin’ the other way, jumped in the car and took off.  Turns out he was comin’ out to give me a summons for jury duty.  He went back to town and told the sheriff he wadn’t goin’ back.  Them folks was crazy out there.”

 

 

A Hog a Day Part 5

“Hurry up and get your shoes on.  We’re going to Mr. Grady’s house.  You can play with his grandkids.”  Daddy called behind him as he headed for the truck. “I ain’t waiting for you!”

I was near frantic as I tore through the house looking for the shoes I’d kicked off the last time I’d been made to wear them.  Shoes were for school and going places.  I’d never have worn them voluntarily.  “I gotta find my shoes so I can go with Daddy.  He ain’t waiting!”

Mother didn’t show proper concern.  “You’re supposed to put them under your bed.  Did you look there?”

I don’t know why she said stuff like that.  I never put things away!  This time, I was saved.  They were tucked neatly under my bed where Mother had put them when she swept. “I found ‘em.  Bye!”

”Don’t kick ‘em off and leave them somewhere.  That’s your only pair.  Are you listening?”

”I won’t!  Bye!”  Daddy was waiting in the truck with the engine running with Billy next to him.  “I thought maybe I was gonna have to leave you.”

Mr. Grady and two identical-looking boys greeted us at the gate.  “This here is my grandboys, Big Boy and Little Boy.  Now, all you younguns go play while  we go git a cup of coffee.  Boys, I’ll skin you alive if I catch you chasing the calf again.”  The four of us took off.  I liked these kids, already.

“You want to see the armadillos?”  one of them inquired.

”Okay.”  I’d seen plenty of armadillos, mostly flat on the roadside, but never had the opportunity to get to know one personally.  We trooped to a fenced in area back of the house where a herd of armadillos of all sizes rushed us.

”They think we  gonna feed ‘em, “ one of the boys explained. “Pap’s always got a mess of armadillos shut up back here.  We gonna fool ‘em today, though.  We gonna eat one for dinner today.  Want to help us catch one.”

The race was on.  We chased those fast little rascals all over that pen but never caught one.  Eventually, we gave it up for wheelbarrow rides.  Two kids pushed the barrow while the rider claimed the privilege of riding till dumped over.  I could have done that all day. Eventually, Daddy concluded his visit and we headed home.  I was very disappointed to miss the armadillo dinner, but Daddy said we had to be moving on.  Though I spent hours with them, I never did learn which was Big Boy or Little Boy.

When we got home, the first words out of Mother’s mouth were, “Where are your shoes?  You’ve got to go to Bible School tomorrow.”

I wore sixty-nine cent flip flops for the rest of the summer.

 

 

 

 

I Didn’t Do Nothing!

Connie and Marilyn, my younger sisters were great friends with Ralphie, the neighbor boy.  They never fought, playing happily for hours.  Most often, they shared a seat on the school bus, since his stop was right after theirs.  A skinny little guy, Ralphie’s nose dominated his face, causing him to endure taunts on a regular basis.

One afternoon, Connie flew in crying to Mother the instant she got off the bus.  “Ralphie hit me in the stomach!”

Mother was shocked.  They’d always been such good friends.  “Why did he do that?  He never hits.  What did you do to him?”

”Nothing!  I didn’t do nothing to him!”  Marilyn was right behind her, backing her up.

”Are you sure you didn’t  do anything to him?”  she queried.

”No!” Connie insisted.

”Come on then.  I guess we’d better go talk to his mama.  I can’t have him hitting y’all.”  She got her purse and herded Connie and Marilyn into the car, determined to put a stop to Ralphie’s bad behavior before it got out of hand.  The girls were delighted, knowing Ralphie anticipating Ralphie’s big trouble.

Miss Betty invited Mother in, though she did seem a little cool.  Ralphie and the girls settled to play, as they always did.

Miss Betty brought Mother a cup of coffee and took a seat at the kitchen table with Mother.  “ I need to talk to you, Betty.  Connie said Ralphie hit her in the stomach for no reason.”

”I know.” Betty answered. “Did Connie tell you she called him Banana Nose?  His daddy told him to do that when kids call him that. He has to stick up for himself.”

Mother was mortified.  “Connie, did you call Ralphie Banana Nose?  You know better than that!  No wonder he hit you!  You tell hm you’re sorry, right now.”

Connie was in it, deep. “I’m sorry, Ralphie.”

Hastily, Mother made her goodbyes, heading home to eat crow.

Connie learned not to call names that day.  Mother learned not to believe a kid who “didn’t do nothing.”

 

 

 

Our Awful Friends Part 5

Little Becky soon grew into her heritage and joined her roving brothers. Of course, being smaller, she tired sooner and was apt to be left somewhere along the way.  Mrs. Awful didn’t need to worry.  Without fail, some mother was sure to dispatch Becky home if she lingered too long.  One unfortunate day, we suffered a sewer malfunction at our house.  Daddy was hard at work digging out the sewer line when he noted Becky behind him, making mud pies in the mess he’d left.  He wasn’t particularly enjoying his work that day and howled for Mother to get Becky out of there.  Mother sprayed Becky with the water hose and walked her home herself, figuring that was the best way to contain the mess and cut down on her own laundry.  She handed her off to Mrs. Awful, who commenced yelling for the boys who were supposed to be watching Becky.  Mother didn’t linger for coffee.

A couple of days later, Mother looked out to see Little Becky sitting in our sand pile, still wearing the same unlaundered clothes she’d been wearing on her last visit.  Again, Mother delivered her home.  After that, whenever Becky lingered too long in our yard, Mother would have Phyllis return her, fearing the unsupervised child would wander into the pasture and be kicked by a horse or fall in the pond. For some reason, she was grudging about taking on the care of another toddler since she had plenty of her own.

I know Mother chose Phyllis to return Becky because she could resist the lure of the Awful’s since Billy and I had made it clear we yearned to join their traveling circus.  We were always denied permission to “go see the Awfuls” or ramble with them. One fine day, I caught Mother napping on the sofa and whispered a request.  “Can I go play with Jamey?”

She snored, “Uhhhhhh” at me and I knew I’d hit pay dirt.  Their house was a wonderland.  A sycamore grew adjacent to the front porch.  We skittered up the tree and climbed in through a mangled attic window.  From there, we crawled through the dusty attic and dropped through the attic access into their grandma’s closet.  Until we dropped in on Grandma, I had no idea she existed.  Deep in a nap, she awoke screaming, to the kid’s delight.  We fled, leaving the house through a hole in the living room floor.  Of course, Mama Awful was unhappy to have her soaps interrupted by a bunch of wild kids.  We had traversed the entire house without using a door.  We made two or three such passes before Phyllis appeared at the door to fetch me home.  She took great pleasure in telling me how much trouble I was in for going to the Awfuls without permission.  Naturally, when I got home, I was able to make Mother remember my request to go. I escaped that time, but she made it clear she had to be awake before giving permission for anything else.  I was also pre-threatened not to awaken her unless a kid was bleeding or something was on fire.  She had a bad attitude.  In the future, when she took her rare naps, all requests had to go through Phyllis, meaning they were met by a resounding “NO!”  It was a rotten deal.

 

Our Awful Friends

Freedom at the Awful’s  Illustration by Kathleen Holdaway Swain

Mother was a cruel beast of a woman who rarely allowed us out of our own yard.  I felt so deprived when free-range children passed our house in pursuit of adventure.  Sometimes we were able to tempt them in with our tire swing, zip line, or huge barn, but invariably greener pastures called and we were left morosely watching them amble off to Donnie’s or Joey’s house.  Sadly, we’d pine as the motley crew and their retinue of dogs disappeared down the dusty road.  It wasn’t that we didn’t have wondrous opportunities on our own place;t we just hated being left behind.

Once we accepted our sad abandonment, we didn’t waste time whining to Mother that “We don’t have anything to do.”  I only made that mistake once and Mother set me to hanging out diapers, dusting, and washing woodwork.  In fact, she was mean enough to assign jobs to break up fights.  It’s terrible growing up with a mother who turns human nature against innocent children.

At any rate, a family neighboring us raised their fortunate children with a complete lack of supervision.  Those kids roamed long after dark, before daylight, dropped in for meals all over the neighborhood, drank out of from the neighbor’s faucets, rode the neighbor’s cows, and generally led a charmed life.  Though their name was Offut, I misunderstood it as Awful.  In her frequent dealings with these children Mother reached the conclusion Awful was an excellent name.  She was particularly offended when we came home from town and found them in the house making Kool-aid.  The Awful’s had little understanding of private property and had often had Kool-aid with us, so of course they felt free to help themselves, even if Mother had been careless enough not to leave it in the refrigerator.  Her attitude baffled our uninvited guests.  I think the syrupy floor and Jerry’s standing on the counter helping himself to a pack of Daddy’s cigarettes off the top shelf also ruffled her feathers, but she was the crabby type, after all.  The loss of cigarettes were of particular concern.  A carton cost two dollars and eighty cents, a significant portion of her fifteen dollar grocery budget.  At any rate, she took an unreasonable stance and forbade them to enter the house again when we were gone.  I don’t think they found it particularly disturbing since a couple more packs of cigarettes went missing before Daddy found a better hiding place for his stash.