Monday, July 30, 2012

If I had an Animal Diary, this is where it would begin.


 
Butch
Last week, when my 19 year-old cat, Risty, was dying, I got to ticking off blocks of time measured in pets. Butch, a wired-haired fox terrier, was my parents' dog before I was born, but he became mine. 

Though Butch was my daily companion from the time I learned to walk, only two times with him are still stark and clear--the story that follows and the day he died. That day, he ran up our front porch steps ahead of me and collapsed in a spreading circle of his own urine. It was the early 50s, and either my Midwestern parents didn't know about Florida mosquitoes and heart-worms, or there was no preventive treatment back then. I'll never know, but Butch was my first pet to die, and in my first decade of life.

At the time this portion of my memoir takes place, we lived in Maitland, FL (north of Orlando.) The Eatonville cemetery separated our rental house from one of the first all-Black towns to be formed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and was incorporated on August 15, 1887. Zora Neale Hurston grew up there. (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eatonville,_Florida
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My Dad w/ Butch on the back of his chair

                              











Butch and my mother




















It was dark and Daddy wasn’t home.
Our radio was next to the bread box, and I sat on the kitchen stool waiting for The Shadow to start.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”
I lowered the volume when the scary laugh started, and reached to switch on the stove light. I felt braver with a little light. With my elbows on the counter, and my chin on my fist, I leaned as close as I could to hear with the volume so low. Momma promised to kill me if I started the baby crying again. She’d been upstairs for an hour walking the floor with Kristin.
I turned the radio off after the show ended and, for a moment, the only noise was the clock on the stove ticking, then Butch, my dog, sat up to scratch a flea, ringing his tags. He and I heard the crying at the same time. I thought it was Kristin starting up again, but Butch growled.
            “Shhhh.”
Someone was sobbing.
            Butch growled again, and I followed the sound of his toenails clicking across the kitchen linoleum out onto the back porch. My parent’s bedroom was directly overhead so I thought it was Momma crying. She always used to get upset and panicky when Daddy was late coming home.
            I stood next to the washing machine, and looked up as if I could see her through the ceiling. Butch went to the door, whined and scratched like he did when he wanted out. I had my hand on the handle, when I saw something move on the other side of the screen. Someone was sitting on the back step. My heart thumpity, thumped as I put my arms around Butch’s neck and pulled him away from the door. Whoever was there was shapeless against the glow that came from our landlord’s porch light.  
Butch broke away and pressed his nose to the screen.
            “I needs help.” It was a colored lady’s voice.
           
“Momma?” The door to Kristin’s and my room was closed. I opened it a crack. The hinges creaked.
            “Jesus, Ginny.” Momma hissed from the darkness. “What is it?”
I heard her groan as she got up, then a sliver of her face appeared in the crack.
            “There’s a colored lady crying on the back step,” I whispered.
            Momma flung the door wide. “What?”
            “She says she needs help.”
            “Oh my God. Did you lock the door?”
            “Lock what door?”
            “The kitchen door and check the front one, too. Oh my God.” She glanced back at Kristin in her crib, pulled the door closed, and ran on tiptoes to hers and Daddy’s bedroom. “Go,” she snapped at me, then disappeared into their dark room.
            “Please help me,” I heard the woman say, as I shut and locked the kitchen door, then ran through the dining room, across the living room and locked the door that opened onto the front porch.
            Behind me the stairs creaked, and I jumped nearly out of my skin. It was Momma, and she had Daddy’s 38 pistol.
            “Are you going to shoot her?”
            “Don’t be a fool, Ginny, and turn off those lamps. We’re like fish in bowl with all the lights on.”
            I darted from lamp to lamp while Momma crept down the hallway toward the downstairs bathroom. There was a window in there that looked out on the back steps. I tiptoed after her, with Butch behind me, toenails clicking on the pine floor.
            “Should I call Mr. Durham?”
            “What could that old fool do besides get himself knifed?”
            “You think she wants to kill us?”
            “She could be a decoy, trying to lure us out of the house.”
            “For what?”
            “I don’t know. To rob us.”
            “Momma, if there was someone with her, they coulda just come on in. The back door was open and the screen’s not hooked.”
            Momma shushed me, and opened the bathroom window. “What do you want?”
            “Don’t want no trouble, ma’am,” the woman said. “I just needs help. He done broke my arm this time.”
            “I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
            “Could you call my sister to come get me? She live just down the road.”
            “Yes. I can do that.” Momma waved me out of the room, and down the hall, then called out the number while I dialed it.
Nearly everyone had a party line, but we didn’t. Momma refused to live this far out in the country without a private line when she was pregnant with Kristin. The same was not true for the colored lady’s sister. It took me four tries to get through.
            “Lordy, I was afraid this was gonna happen,” her sister said. “Whereabouts is she?”
            “She’s crying on our porch steps.”
            “And where might those steps be?”
            “We’re the white family on the other side of yall’s cemetery.”
            “Well ain’t you fine people to help. I’ll send brother right down to fetch her.”
            “I’ll tell Momma.” I started to hang up.
            “He’ll be walking,” I heard her say. “So it will take some time.”
            “I’ll tell her,” I said.
            “Can sister walk back, you think?
            “It’s her arm that’s broke; I’ll have to go ask about her legs.” I put the receiver on the table and skipped down the hall.
            Momma was sitting on the toilet seat with the side of her head against the wall. The gun lay on the floor by her right foot. I stepped up on the side of the tub. “Lady,” I whispered, trying not to wake Momma. “Your sister wants to know if your legs are okay? Can you walk back home with your brother when he comes?”
            “I’ll try,” she said.
            I tiptoed back to the phone, and told her sister.
The phone was on a table under the stairs. From where I stood I could see the lake out the front windows, and a car’s headlights coming along the road. We had the only house at this end of the lake, beside the Durham’s. People wanting to go into the town of Eatonville, which was a half mile to our south, didn’t come this way. Our road was dirt; the main road into Eatonville came in from Winter Park and was paved. Even though there was only the colored cemetery between us and Eatonville, our address was Maitland. Momma made sure of that.
Daddy’s car whizzed by the turn off to our garage. Out the dining room window, I saw his brake lights as he stopped the car, reversed and backed up. He turned in, just missing the grapefruit tree and followed the two ruts into the garage. I went through the kitchen, and unlocked the back door. I wanted to see his expression when he found the colored lady sitting on the step. I pulled the string to turn on the light bulb in the porch ceiling. It shone right through the screen onto the back steps. She was gone. 
Daddy had half our backyard to cross as he wove toward the steps. He shaded his eyes against the light. “Is that you, Ginny?”
“Shhhhh, Daddy. You’ll wake the baby.”
He lifted an index finger and waggled it through the air until he found his lips to press it against. “Don’t wake the baby,” he said.
“Did you see the colored lady?”
He stopped. “What colored lady?” He swayed and squinted at the light. 
I wondered if maybe he ran over her out on the road when a floorboard creaked and I turned. Momma was behind me watching Daddy with her arms crossed, the gun in her apron pocket.
I remember thinking ‘poor Daddy.’ But then I was only seven. The tampering with my love for my father was still incomplete.  


Me w/ severely permed hair & Mom, Dad & Butch


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