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Authors: Chris Woodworth

When Ratboy Lived Next Door (10 page)

BOOK: When Ratboy Lived Next Door
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Come Monday morning, Nanna put me to work hanging the clothes on the line. It's funny how during school you count the days till summer, thinking the fun is going to start with a big blast—like the best fireworks on the Fourth of July, the ones that look like the biggest carnation filling up the sky and making everybody say “Ahhhh.” Then there are you, first day of summer vacation, picking up soggy shirts and clipping them to the clothesline.

After we ate a quick lunch, Nanna said, “Grab some berry baskets off the back porch and meet me around front. We have work to do.”

Nanna marched up to the Merrills' front door. I lagged behind with the baskets. I didn't want to see Willis's mean face or Elliot's accusing one.

“How do, Carolyn! Isn't it a lovely day?”

“Hello, Nanna.”

“Lydia and I were just on our way to the old Pearson place. It's vacant now, but there is a patch of wild strawberries growing that's just begging for someone to come pick it. Lydia will keep an eye on Beth for you, and tonight you and I will be serving fresh strawberries for dessert. Won't that be fine?”

Mrs. Merrill looked plumb exhausted. It's no wonder, the way Nanna had been badgering her about a garden, then the clothesline, and now strawberry picking.

“Nanna, I really don't think I—”

“Carolyn, I'm not taking no for an answer. I can't pick like I used to or I'd pick enough to give you, and I can't stand to think of those berries going to waste. Now, you and Beth get ready.”

She marched back down the steps and said, “I'm bringing the car around.”

I perked up and watched her open the garage door. She got behind the wheel of our 1957 Chevy Belair as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I couldn't remember the last time Nanna had driven. She acted as if the price of gas would put us in the poorhouse, which was funny, considering Daddy owned a gas station. So it was odd seeing her whip the car out of the garage. I said a quick prayer to our Maker that she remembered how to drive the danged thing.

Beth and I sat in the back with Betsy McCall in the wooden box between us. It annoyed me that she had to take the box with her. She didn't know how to play at all. What if I'd given her, say, a pogo stick? Would she have brought that along, too?

“You know, you don't need to bring Betsy's box everywhere. You can leave it at home.”

“Oh, no! It's mine. I have to keep it with me.” She put her arm around the box. Then I realized she was probably afraid of what Willis would do if she left it at home.

Once we were out on the road, Mrs. Merrill really opened up. She seemed happy to have someone to talk to.

“It's true, I was young when I had Beth,” she said to Nanna. Then she turned back and smiled at Beth. Lowering her voice, she added, “Her daddy, her
real
daddy, that is, took off before she was even born. There I was, back in my father's house with a baby in tow. After I'd sworn I'd never go back, too.”

“Well, we've all made promises to ourselves and had to break them,” Nanna said.

“Daddy acted like he hated it, but I think it gave his life purpose, ranting and raving at me about my poor choice of a husband and all. It sounds silly, but he never seemed happy unless he had someone to yell at, and my mamma had passed on, so there was just me at home.” She kind of giggled. “I guess you could say I made him a very happy man, in a roundabout way.”

She and Nanna laughed.

“I always wanted to be a beautician.” She said it almost shyly.

“You do have a knack for hair. I always notice how beautiful your hair looks,” Nanna told her.

Mrs. Merrill turned her face away, but I could see she was pleased.

“Well, it doesn't really matter now. Do you know it costs two hundred and fifty dollars at the Beauty Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, to get your beautician's license?”

“Do tell!”

“Yes, ma'am. Two hundred and fifty dollars. I was trying to save the money. We lived in a small town in Kentucky where everybody knew everybody's business. I thought Beth and I could start over in a big city like Louisville where no one knew us. But it might as well have been two thousand dollars.”

She tilted her head out the car window to let the air cool her face.

“I'd just come to the conclusion there was no way I could save that much money when along came Boyd Merrill. He wanted to get married. He wanted a mother for his boys. My father said if I married Boyd there was no coming back this time. Beth and I had to sneak out through my bedroom window with just the clothes on our backs! But I did it mainly because I'd always felt bad about Beth not having a daddy, so … here we are.”

That explained Mrs. Merrill's one dress. I wondered if she'd have been so quick to climb out that window if she'd known Willis was part of the bargain.

Beth was drifting off to sleep. I moved the box to the floor and gently leaned her toward me. Her eyes fluttered, then she put her head down on my leg. I turned my attention back to Nanna and Mrs. Merrill, but Nanna was looking at me in her rearview mirror. She squared her shoulder and asked, “Have you driven over to Aylesville yet?”

Shoot! She probably changed the subject so I wouldn't hear the good stuff.

“No, Boyd's job keeps him away so much.”

“Really? What does he do?”

“Boyd's friend used to work at the McMillan factory. When he quit, Boyd applied for his job and we moved here,” Mrs. Merrill said. “Boyd says it's hot as Hades in that factory. He works lots of hours and it tires him out. When he's home, he doesn't like to go anywhere.”

“Well, that's Boyd's excuse. What about you? Have you driven over?”

“Oh, mercy, no! I can't drive!”

“We'll have to remedy that. A woman never knows when she might need to drive. Your husband could get sick or something and where would you be?”

“Elliot is almost fifteen. He'll be driving soon enough. I don't need to learn how,” Mrs. Merrill said with her nervous laugh.

Nanna wasn't laughing at all. “Nonsense. We'll have you driving today.”

*   *   *

Beth sat in the shade of the Pearsons' old porch playing with Betsy McCall. Nanna had Mrs. Merrill behind the wheel of the car. They were using the lane to the barn as a road so Nanna could teach her to drive. And me, I stood in the scorching sun picking enough strawberries for two families. Somehow I think that was Nanna's plan all along.

Mrs. Merrill was adamant that Beth not see her driving. “She's too young to keep quiet about this and I can't let Boyd know. He doesn't approve of women driving.”

For once Nanna listened. Besides telling me to pick berries, she said to keep Beth around the front of the house.

I could hear the gears grinding. When I was sure Beth was busy playing, I sneaked around the corner and watched for a bit. I could see the car hop once and die. Then grind-hop-die, all over again. Nanna had been jerked so much in the car that her hair was falling down from its pins, and Mrs. Merrill seemed to be past the point of crying.

Mrs. Merrill stopped the car, got out, and slammed the door. Nanna got out, too. Mrs. Merrill stomped around for a minute, then kicked the car's tire. “Maybe some people just can't drive! Maybe I'm one of them! It's not like I
asked
you for driving lessons, Nanna!”

Nanna went around to the back of the car. Her crown of braids had come completely loose and she sure was a sight.

“Carolyn, you listen to me. I may have forced you into these driving lessons, but if you give up today, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's missed opportunities.”

She pulled a basket out of the trunk of the car, reached inside, and took out a mason jar of ice tea. She handed it to Mrs. Merrill. While Mrs. Merrill drank, Nanna took a stick and drew in the dust.

“This is the layout of the gears, Carolyn. If you don't start out in first gear, it's going to die on you.”

I wanted to hear more but went back to check on Beth. I picked up the full berry baskets, set them on the porch, and said, “I'll be right back, okay, Beth? I need to see if we brought more baskets.”

Beth was busy with her doll and just murmured, “Mm-hmm.”

When I went back, I heard Nanna say, “Then ease off the clutch at the same time you push the accelerator. When it's done right, it feels just as smooth as a bird gliding across the open sky.”

Mrs. Merrill screwed the lid back on her jar and said, “And when it's done wrong, it feels like there's a fool behind the wheel who bit off more than she can chew.”

Nanna seemed to consider that for a minute. “Maybe you're right, Carolyn. Maybe you just don't have what it takes.”

Nanna saw me and carried two jars of tea over. “Here, Lydia, one for you and one for Beth. And you stay around front with that child, young lady.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

I walked toward the front of the house, but when I glanced back, Mrs. Merrill was in the driver's seat with a look on her face that said she was going to do this or die trying. Maybe Nanna's stubbornness was rubbing off on her.

I sat on the porch beside Beth and opened her jar of tea. I gulped mine down. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I said, “You've been awful patient, Beth. Have you and Betsy had a good time?”

Beth said, “Shhh. Betsy just got all her babies to sleep.”

I looked down and saw six little concoctions made out of hollyhocks. I reached for one and Beth slapped my hand away like a stern little mother.

“I
told
you. The babies are asleep!”

“Oh! These are the babies. I see.”

I tried again: “It looks to me like this one is stirring. Mind if I rock her?”

Beth scrunched up her little forehead like a person thinking real hard, then said, “Okay. But just the one.”

I picked it up and turned it over in my hand. Someone had taken a full hollyhock blossom and run a toothpick through the center of it, then turned it upside down so the petals looked like a skirt. There was a Hollyhock bud stuck on top of the toothpick, which was supposed to be the baby's head, and a second toothpick stuck crossways through the petals to look like arms.

“Did you make these, Beth?”

“No,” she said, fussing with her “babies.”

“Did your mama make them? Or Elliot?” I could picture Elliot doing something like this.

“Willis made them.” Beth covered them up with leaves for blankets and said, “He feels bad about Elizabeth. He makes me new babies every day.”

Willis?

*   *   *

When we got back to the house, Nanna stopped in front to let Mrs. Merrill and Beth out. She said, “You'd best get out now, too, Lydia. You know what a tight fit the car is in the garage.”

“Okay. Do you mind if I take a ride on my bike?”

“Run along and enjoy the rest of the afternoon, honey. You've worked hard today.”

I rode straight to the filling station. Daddy had his arm stretched across a windshield, giving it a good wash, when he saw me. “Ladybug! It's been so long since you've visited me, I thought the grass was gonna dry up and blow away.”

I felt bad because I hadn't been there since I met Elliot.

“Hi, Daddy.”

He finished with the car and said, “We'd best go check out that pop cooler.”

I let the coolness of the Choc-ola wash over my throat, savoring the taste. Then I wiped my mouth and followed Daddy into the front bay, where he had a car on the hoist.

“Daddy, I have a favor to ask.”

“A favor? Well, I'll have to check. I might be fresh out of favors.”

“I'm serious, Daddy. I want to know if you can loosen my bike chain.”

He stopped tinkering with the car and looked at me. “Why?”

“Well, I'd rather not say.”

“It's a secret, huh?” He chuckled. “You know if I add a link to your chain, you're going to be right back here wanting me to take the extra link out, don't ya?”

“Maybe.”

“Then you'll need another favor, and I already told you I'm running low on them.”

I laughed. I figured it was the least I could do.

After he loosened my chain, I pushed my bike all the way home. I was a little out of breath, but I didn't mind—since I planned to talk to Elliot, I thought that might help to cover up my nervousness.

The weather was clear, so he was back in his garden. When I pushed my bike up to him, he kept working the hoe as if he didn't know I was on the planet.

“We had a deal.”

He acted as if he didn't hear me.

“We had a deal that I would sell popcorn for you and you'd fix my bike chain. Well, I sold popcorn for you.”

After what seemed like forever, he said, “I'll have to borrow your tools.”

“That's fine.”

He walked over to our shed and rummaged around until he found what he needed. He bent down and started to work on the chain. I was afraid it wouldn't take him long to get that link off, and I had to make good use of the time.

“I was wrong, Elliot.”

He hesitated a split second, then kept on working.

“I made friends with you because I like you. I like Beth, too. But Willis isn't the same as you.”

He shook his head to show he was disgusted with me.

“But it's true! He's nothing but nasty. His raccoon tackled me, which scared me to death. He pushed me down and made my knees bleed. He attacked me over a dumb nickel that I didn't even owe him! And that was all the first day I met him! Plus, he's lied
to
me and
about
me. I can't like him. I'm not sorry about that. But I was wrong to pretend to you that I thought he was an okay person. That's what I'm sorry for. I should have been truthful, but I was afraid you wouldn't be my friend.”

BOOK: When Ratboy Lived Next Door
11.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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