Better Than a Party Line
When I was six years old, my father announced that he was being transferred from Springfield to Beardstown. “Beardstown??” Mother howled. “Swat a mosquito, read about it next day! Entertainment’s a bench by the square across from the feed store or going to a funeral to catch up on gossip.”
“Gossip” had a ring. Little Pitcher wanted to know more.
I soon learned that gossips fell into two categories: (l) Vicious horse-necks who said bad things about you and people you liked and (2) nice folks who just said bad things about people you thought were stinkers or didn’t know. The vicious ones deserved to be dunked in the river when the catfish were biting, but the nice ones were providing a valuable service. Were more informative than newspapers, and much more entertaining
Mother grew up in a burg down south where gossip was ladled higher than cornsticks and cream gravy. She had the art down pat before she could pronounce the word without lisping. Few places are better practice grounds than a state capital in a corn belt, and she took full advantage. A keen observer who prided herself on her ability to butter people up, she had strangers pulling skeletons out of their closets five minutes after meeting her. “Want someone in your pocket,” she’d say, “shoot straight and make ‘em laugh!”
Beardstown turned out to be a bigger font of gossip than expected. Gossip flowed at Book Club, Bridge Club, The Sand Bar [don’t tell your father!], Donny’s Drug & Ice Cream Parlour, and Sunday service; but the richest source was Alicelynne’s Beautee Shoppe. There were so many hair-curling revelations, Alicelynne swore she saved on rollers and bobby pins.
People got hurt. Sharp tongues cut, and they weren’t rationed like coffee and meat. As with my mother, many a miserable marriage and other serious problems hid behind belly-shaking laughs and crocodile tears. “I hate to say this.” “I feel sorry for both of them, but …”
Some targets wouldn’t know the difference, it was theorized.
Take the septuagenarian twins whose hobby was — you guessed it — attending funerals! Betty and Letty had never missed one, and never intended to. “Saw the twins shopping for new handkerchiefs at Woolworth’s,” Mother would nudge a pew-mate and whisper. “Who kicked the bucket?”
If it was someone the twins knew, they sprang for new flowers for their hats. Must have known people talked about them. What did they care? Funerals were good for more drama than that dingy Rialto, and gum wasn’t stuck to your seat. Well, there was the RKO Newsreel. Still a war on, you know.
Makes me think of the WWII poster, “Loose Lips Sink Ships!”
In Springfield, city buses were plastered with warnings that walls had ears. When have they not?
You Could Get in Trouble
“I knew something was going on the second week of school. You should have seen the way she looked at him.”
“Well, you should have kept your suspicions to yourself. Now look where we are. Are you getting a cold? You sound kinda hoarse and your nose is all red.”
“No, so you don’t have to slide all the way down to the other end of the bench. And by the way, teacher’s little helper, you were just as deep into the drama as the rest of us.”
“Maybe? Admit it. It was better than General Hospital. And I noticed that you got to the bus stop late a few times, just so you could hang around the teacher’s parking lot, waiting to see if something might happen …”
“Okay. Okay. It was better than the TV soaps, because we saw them in the flesh every day — like our own movie stars. Once I thought Jennifer was gonna ask Miss Smiley for her autograph. But we never knew that they were doing anything wrong. We were just looking for something to distract us from—”
“That’s not what you said when Miss Smiley missed a week of school. You were right there in the locker room with the rest of us: ‘She’s pregnant. She was pregnant but she had an abortion. She had a nervous breakdown. Mr. Roberts’ wife found out and told the principal and now Miss Smiley’s fired.’” Maryann sneezed loudly and wetly.
“Geez, you sprayed all over me. That was disgusting.”
“What do you think did happen to her?”
“Better worry about what’s going to happen to you.”
“My mother’ll kill me if I get suspended for this.”
“Don’t start crying, for Chrissake. And don’t go admitting to anything. My father always says, ‘Even if they show you pictures, deny it.’ Anyhow, what did we do wrong? We aren’t the ones who had the affair.”
“We don’t really know there was an affair, do we? I mean, I heard Mr. Rufus say that they’re cousins, and that Miss Smiley’s fiancé was killed in Afghanistan, and Mr. Roberts was just trying to be nice to her.”
“Sure, they’re cousins.”
“It could be true, you know. They could have been cousins, or just friends. We don’t know where she went or why.”
“And Monica Lewinsky was just a White House aide.”
The principal’s door opened. “Sally Jamison, come in.”
“Hope your cold gets better,” Sally said, as she gathered her books.
My mother had brought me and my baby sister back to her Minnesota hometown to stay at grandma’s house while she recovered from something I later understood was post-partum depression. That first day Grandma walked me to school, and when I was sent out at noon to go home for lunch, I got lost. Crying, I knocked on a door that was warm with familiar zinnias and asked, “Do you know where my Grandma Anderl lives?” Fortunately, the lady at the door did, it being a very small town, and I was led home.
My first week there, the fifth-grade teacher asked us to draw a picture showing perspective, which she had illustrated on the blackboard with a ruler. “Maybe trees,” she suggested. I drew trees from home – tall wind-breaking willows, between fields of strawberries. A half hour later, I handed in my picture. The teacher held it up to the class, said, “A nice illustration of perspective. However, I’ve never ever seen trees like this.” I heard snickers in back of me.
I blinked back tears. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. “I thought it was nice.” The girl behind me smiled, my first smile in that classroom. She walked out beside me to the playground at recess. My mother would not have liked the dingy skirt, the too-big shoes Grace wore, but I liked that she asked me questions: Why did I start school so late in the year? Who did I live with? Did I like four-square? She invited me to come home with her the next afternoon, and I did, with Grandma’s permission.
I remember the cats. They curled around our legs and as Grace fed them from a pot of oatmeal, I looked around; I’d never been in a house so full. We removed clothing from the chairs, dirty dishes from the tabletop before we sat down. Grace opened a bottle of soda, carefully poured me half, herself the rest. When I had to go home, I asked for directions, and she held my hand and walked me a few blocks.
The next morning Louise, who sat in front of me, led me into the cloakroom, her face narrow and eager. She’d heard I’d gone home with Grace. That was a really bad thing to do. Didn’t I notice Grace scratching her head all the time? Nits in her hair and now, I’d have them too. I shouldn’t get near her, touch her. No telling what else she had, what hid in her ugly house, “Watch out,” she warned.
So that day I didn’t return Grace’s smile, and when I went out to the playground I joined the girls gathering at Louise’s chalked hopscotch. I don’t remember ever speaking to Grace again.
My mother recovered, we left after a month or so. Only at late-night churnings do I think of Grace, of the dip of her lips, the sad lowering of her eyes that recess I left her alone on the playground.
I Told You
I am a Catholic, born one and raised by my parents as one. I studied in a Catholic school run by Franciscan sisters. Though I may seem to be such a well-behaved child, I have my own share of misbehavior. This happened a long, long time ago.
At six thirty in the morning, the school bus dropped me off. Sleepily dragging my feet, my school bag hanging by my shoulder, I walked the grounds going to our building.
Back then, my habit was that before I went up to the classroom, I would go to our chapel and visit the Blessed Sacrament. There I was, on my way to the chapel when I was jolted out of my sleepy mood. I heard voices, three girls whispering to each other. I couldn’t quite hear what they were talking about.
“Whatever are they talking about?” I asked myself. It just seemed interesting to know, judging from how they were acting while deep in their conversation. One of the girls was my next door neighbor; I called out to her.
“Hi, Eleanor, what happened?”
At first, she was hesitant. But then she took me by the side and whispered, “The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared before Clarissa. There, on top of the grotto,” pointing towards the rock formation on the side of our chapel. “She doesn’t want anyone to know about it. So, don’t tell anyone.” I was stunned.
“Wow!” I said to myself. Gullible me just believed every word Eleanor uttered. An apparition had occurred. I was ecstatic. I was filled with so much joy. Imagine, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of all Mothers, appeared here in our school! I couldn’t contain myself. I forgot that I shouldn’t tell anyone.
No, that is not true at all. Actually, I didn’t forget. I wanted to tell everyone that a wonderful thing had happened. This had to be shared. Everyone must know about it. I was so sure the Blessed Virgin Mary would want everyone to know.
And so, I told everyone I met on my way to the chapel. And, I told everyone I met on my way to my classroom. I was so sure I was doing a good deed.
Eleanor came rushing to me. “You tattletale! I told you not to tell anyone. Now, Clarissa is so mad at me for telling you our secret.”
And off she went, never, ever to tell me, never, ever to share with me, another tidbit, another secret.
Am I Who People Say I Am?
Breaking Plates, Crete
At dusk I wait for Christos to pick me up for dinner. I try not to wrinkle my skirt as I sit in the white plastic chair on the balcony of my pensione. My carefully hot-rolled hair catches just enough of the evening breeze to give it the casual look I want.
I close my eyes and take in the scents riding on the air: jasmine; the sea; cooking. With my eyes closed I can hear more nuances in the songs of the homing birds. Their calls glide as effortlessly as the birds themselves.
A woman’s scream jolts me. I stand but see no one.
Then, a duet of loud, tense voices. Figures rush around the house across the garden. A glass breaks. An accident I think, part of the turmoil.
One woman races up the stairs, yelling. The other chases her, screaming back. I’m embarrassed. I’m viewing a private act. Riveted, I hide behind the grapevines.
Another glass breaks. The yelling escalates to a murderous pitch. Where are they? What if the house of the screaming women were a dollhouse cut in half so I could see all the rooms? Then I could chart the fight, room by room, up and down. I could see doors slamming, laundry hurled, chairs overturned in the frenzy.
An enormous crash: China, now. A lot of china.
Christos arrives. Without a greeting, I pull him out to the balcony. I whisper into his ear, as if the women can hear us, “There’s a big fight going on. AND they’re breaking dishes!”
Christos steps back. “You don’t do that in America?”
“No.” I ask the calmest, most even tempered man I’ve ever known, “Do you?”
“Of course,” he says proudly. “My mother is worth ten plates.” He shakes his sadly, “my father, three: only three.”