Then the day of our grand picnic arrived. It started out frighteningly dark, with sunlight barely managing to duck under a shelf of clouds in the east but a bruised sky churning menacingly overhead and to the west. But before I was dressed, Mom, who was every bit as nervous as I, assured me that the sky was clearing and the day would be cool and bright. I knew she would be right, too, because she is uncanny at predicting the weather, and she wasn’t one to kid about it.
Very early that Sunday morning Dad took his big flatbed truck, which had been loaded the day before at RENTandRUN, down to the police station to pick up the orange barricades. By the time Mom had let me go from the breakfast table so I could dash up the street, the middle block of Clover Street was officially closed, except to residents, who were permitted to drive carefully to and from their homes. Two big canopies were erected near opposite ends of the block.
Dad and his helpers Roy and Len were setting up tables and chairs in two long rows, right down both edges of the street, leaving the center open.
Now, in the corner lot just as you cross to the middle block of our street is a big brown house with a porch that wraps around the two sides facing both streets. This is Missus Burke’s house. I had only ever seen Missus Burke once, maybe two years ago. On that day, I just happened to be on the opposite corner when a big black, very old, car drove up (Dad said it was her ’37 Packard), and two men helped Missus Burke from the car into a wheelchair, then raised her and the chair up the steps, across that porch, and into the house. That’s all I knew about her.
Since then I learned that everyone who has been to her house (kids anyway, to sell newspapers and such) has had to deal with Sonny, her son, who’s a bachelor about the age of my father. He’s what my mom says they used to call a sissy, but that nobody uses that word any more. Sonny doesn’t seem to like kids, so mostly we stay away. Broccoli delivers The Clover Street News to the Burke house, so I don’t even see Sonny very much.
On the morning of the picnic — (I had on a yellow T-shirt with pink and yellow swirled shorts, pretty short, with high-tops) — I was trotting past the big brown house when the wraparound porch screeched: “Young MAN! Young MAN!”
Right away I knew in my bones, without needing to glance toward the house or anything, that the voice was addressing me and that it was Missus Burke herself, hidden somewhere behind the porch railing, who was its source. I just knew it, you see.
So I kept on running. Faster.
By the time I trotted to a stop next to the nearest canopy, to see how I could help, Roy was lowering a large, not-very-portable charcoal pit from the truck. Dad had had two of these things made during the previous week. Each one was a fifty-five gallon drum split in two from end to end to make a trough, with the pieces welded together to form a cooker six feet long. A grating was mounted on top and metal poles were welded on for legs.
One of these cookers he placed right in the middle of the street at each end of the double line of tables.
Then through the rest of the mid-section Roy and Len set up several condiment tables, and, right in the middle, a microphone and speakers were situated.
I paced up to where my father was hooking up the public address system. “Can I help with anything, Dad?”
“I think we’re pretty well under control here. Save your energy for when you’ll need it, okay, Suki?”
“I’m just afraid that only ten people will show up for this. I’ll be so embarrassed.”
“So what? There won’t be anything wasted, except maybe a little charcoal. If so, we’ve set up a few extra tables and chairs. And we’ll know we won’t need so many next time.”
Then it struck me what he was doing at that moment. “Dad, I don’t want to appear stupid or anything,” I started.
“‘It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid,’” he said, “‘than to open it and remove all doubt.’ Mark Twain. You should read him.”
“I have,” I lied, and kicked myself inwardly. (I’d wanted to, but just never could get around to it.)
“Dad, why the microphone?”
“Why, SuSu! You’re going to say something to all these people, aren’t you?”
“ME?!” I squeaked.
Dad ignored my surprise. “About how nice it is to have everyone here, and how helpful certain ones were, including me.”
I was just recalling that April Hemple had offered to read a poem to the crowd that day, when Dad added: “And you’ll want to introduce the guest of honor, won’t you?”
“Guest?” I asked. I was nearly reduced to a hoarse whisper. “Who?”
“Well, I didn’t tell you about it yet. Because I didn’t know, really until this morning, that he would be coming.”
“Who?” I was getting irritated.
I fixed him with a stare meant to test his truthfulness. The name meant volumes, but it made no sense. “The real Cole Whitney?” I asked. “The cowboy actor?” I don’t often get totally confused, but I couldn’t figure this out.
“That’s the one.”
“How . . . ?” I tried to ask. After all, what would you have thought? I suppose you know who he is.
He’s kind of old now, and not making movies any more. But he’s still famous, endorsing Remington’s Restaurants and raising money for wildlife conservation. I also vaguely knew that Remington — not the gun maker but the artist — used to cast statues made of bronze and that Cole Whitney looked so much like the cowboys in those statues that Hollywood cast him as a rough-and-tumble good-guy cowboy in about the 1950s and then he was in a TV show with Roy Rogers for a while and then had his own TV show for a few seasons, and that’s the extent of my knowledge now, thanks to my mom’s research mostly.
“He grew up right on this street,” my dad said. “Theirs was the only house back in those days; the rest of the neighborhood was their land. A lot of us older folks know that, but maybe you kids didn’t know.” No, I didn’t know, and, since we hadn’t lived here long, I didn’t even know what to think about a famous person like that coming from my own neighborhood. “We’ll let him tell his own story,” Dad went on, “after you introduce him. He’ll be parking his trailer in our driveway any time now, so you may want to go home and make him welcome. While you’re waiting you can think about your own speech. You won’t have to say too much. But you should acknowledge your role as founder and editor of The Clover Street News and let people know that this picnic was your idea.”
“It was Heidi’s,” I argued weakly, agitated inside at all that had happened in the last fifteen minutes, beginning with Missus Burke’s yelling at me.
Still, I turned and walked toward home. I expected to get yelled at again by Missus Burke once I reached the street corner, and sure enough she chirped as I came abreast: “Young man, come up here!” I tried to put some female motion into my gait as I reluctantly complied.
“You’re no boy, are you!” she laughed as I reached the porch. She was slumped in her wheelchair, with a robe across her lap. Her voice reminded me of brakes fetching up on a tractor-trailer truck.
“No, Ma’am. I’m a regular girl,” I answered, but not very pleasantly.
“Now tell me, are you involved with this circus I’m about to witness?” She looked at me out of a white-powdered, wrinkled face, with clear dark eyes.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I admitted, preparing to scrap with her, if that’s what she wanted. I knew she couldn’t chase me, and even if she called my mother to say something about how impolite I’d been, I could explain easily how rude she was being to me. Then I told her my name and my position with The Clover Street News. I had no delusions that she might never have heard of my newspaper.
“You’re a mighty savvy young lady,” Missus Burke said. Always there was an accusing tone. “Some day I’d like you to tell me how you conceived and accomplished the idea. But for now, you’re the ideal person to do something for me. You would do something for me, wouldn’t you? I’m hardly capable of much myself.”
At this, she began to — well, to vibrate in her chair. She tried to raise herself up by the arms. I rushed forward, and with her coaching I lifted her higher and adjusted a couple of small cushions in order to pinion her there.
“Is that what you wanted, Missus Burke?”
“Oh, you know me, now do you?” she asked, and her penetrating gaze found my eyes even though I was desperate to avert hers.
“I’ve kind of made it my business, I guess you could say, being the gossip publisher of the whole street. But I can’t say that I know much about you.” I sweetened my tone of voice, thinking that the sweeter I sounded the nastier I could get if I had to, and get away with it.
“What you can do for me can’t be done right now,” she said with a hint of meekness at last. She looked wistful, looked through me, in fact. I wondered whether she looked into the distant past, to some pleasant time that became ever more difficult to recall, or to some future time once dreamed of but that now would never be.
I wanted to make her understand that I was going to be very busy later in the day, that I couldn’t just come running whenever she took a notion to beckon me.
But then I though of Heidi, and even my mom, who’d help me carry out a promised favor if I needed her to, so I smiled at Missus Burke and said, “I’d be glad to help you, Missus, whenever you need me.”
“I was beginning to think, young lady, that deep down you might be something like me when I was a girl. Oh, I had energy! And the spirit of a panther! But maybe I’m wrong about you; I wouldn’t have given in so easily as you are to an old lady’s request!”
We both laughed. I lowered myself to a squatting position with my back to the porch railing, directly before her. My eyes were about level with hers. Then she told me what she wanted. “You might have guessed that Sonny, that’s my boy, isn’t around today. And that’s as it must be. That’s also the way he wants it. You see, his brother, Clarence, will be here later this morning, and he doesn’t approve of Sonny. Now, I don’t expect you to understand that explanation, but I want you to know that there is one.”
“Maybe I understand,” I suggested.
“And maybe you do, but you’ll have the grace to let me believe in your ignorance. This morning I told Sonny to place me here, on the porch, before he left for the day. Oh, he protested putting me outside. But I could see that activity on the street, and I knew I could hail a strong young boy or girl before too long.”
“And I have that honor,” I said, sincerely.
“You’re proud, aren’t you child. You’re proud of spirit.” She was nodding her head. “You are like me.”
Then she went into a coughing fit. To give her time to recover I ventured: “So you’re alone until your other son arrives.”
“Not only until he arrives,” she said, “but even while he’s here. He’ll want to see his old mother, to be sure. But he’s here for another reason, and I’m guessing you know what that is.”
I know I looked at her vacantly for a moment, so she added: “You see, Clarence doesn’t use his real name any more.”
I was puzzled for a only a second longer, and then of course it hit me. That is, I deduced some mystery, and I connected it immediately with the conversation I’d just had with my father. Still squatting there, I tilted my head back and looked toward the ceiling of the porch, realizing that this was both the largest, and by far the oldest house on Clover Street. “You’re Cole Whitney’s mother? Of course! I understand. I think. And he’s coming to my house any minute. I’m on my way to meet him now! But, still, how can I help you later?”
“You’re looking at one old lady who’d like very much to mingle with her neighbors, who’d like to taste a grilled hamburger…” she broke off and suddenly her eyes filled with tears. She turned away and emitted a pitiful “Oh!” and then stifled a sob. I was caught in the emotion myself, and for a moment felt like taking her in my arms.
“Missus Burke,” I said as tenderly as I could, “how would you like to be my guest today — mine and my family’s? In fact, I guess Mister Whitney is already going to be our guest, so you can both join us for a real good time.”
“Yes. Thank you. I can see that I could have done much worse in choosing a helper.” Through her wet eyes she smiled. “I was willing to be anybody’s guest, you see.” Then she added: “Young man!” And we both laughed again.
I dropped in to see her often after that, sometimes just to take her a summer flower, sometimes to ask whether I could run an errand or anything. Later that month I took her the first shoofly pie I ever baked.
Always her strange son was around, nervous but silent. He seemed sulky and jealous, but he forced himself to behave cordially when I came around.
But Missus Burke herself was ever glad to see me, never took me for granted, and never teased me to come back soon. I always went because I wanted to see her, not because I felt guilt or pity for her.
The Clover Street News – Chapter 1 – Chapter 2 – Chapter 3 – Chapter 4 – Chapter 5 – Chapter 6 – Chapter 7 – Chapter 8 – Chapter 9 – Chapter 10 – Chapter 11 – Chapter 12 – Chapter 13 – Chapter 14 – Chapter 15 – Chapter 16 – Chapter 17