By Kathy Murtaugh
The bell rang shortly after lunch on a hot afternoon in late August startling our dog Sammy into a frenzied race to the front door.
“It’s just Dottie, Mom,” I said after peeking out from the kitchen doorway into the hall that led to the open front door. Mom was wiping milk spills and crumbs from the porcelain enamel table, and peanut butter smudges from the little boys’ faces. My seven year old sister Marie, younger than I by a year, but taller and a good deal bolder, was carrying dishes to the sink, shaking her head.
“Oh dear, remind her Billy can’t go out to play unless you or Marie are along, too. Anyway, the little boys are about to go down for a nap on the porch.” That upstairs sleeping porch held five beds and a crib for the lot of us kids.
Ha. Needs one of us along! That’s because of the Valentine candy box, I thought as I loped down the hall to open the screen door amused at the memory. Just last March a policeman had returned Billy to our front door. Dottie had walked him uptown to Walgreens and shooed him in to get the candy box to bring home to our mom as a “present.” Big red candy box, on sale, half-price, and almost as big as Billy himself. Only he didn’t have any money, and neither did she. And when the clerk stopped him at the door, she had run off and left him there.
“Hey, Dottie! Come on in. We’re done with lunch,” I explained in case she was hoping to eat with us.
“Hey, Kath. Can you play?” she asked grabbing Sammy’s front paws as he jumped up to greet her. They danced around a bit, Sammy’s tongue lolling and dripping. All the dogs in the neighborhood loved Dottie.
“Mom, can I go out with Dottie?” I called back to the kitchen, not able to hide a pleased smile. I couldn’t remember the last time Dottie had asked for me instead of Billy or Marie. I might have been the neighborhood killjoy of the eight and under set except that I didn’t have even that much influence. Their joy carried on, mostly without me, as I curled up on that upstairs porch with my pile of books.
“Sure, darling, ” Mom replied coming down the hall toward the front door Tommy on her hip. “Stay outdoors though. Remember the boys will be napping. Hello, Dottie.
We headed up Pine Street walking on the cool parkway grass to keep from burning our bare feet on the sidewalk. We passed Dottie’s house, and when we didn’t turn in, I asked, “What do you wanna do?”
“Come on!” she said, her face brightening, her gait suddenly quickening to a trot. Now we’re horses again, I thought, remembering the time she had lead the herd of neighborhood children galloping through the unfenced backyards, neighing and prancing and swaying her willow branch tail behind her. On cue, we had all neighed and pranced and swished our switchy tails, too, until Mrs. Miner hollered, “You’re trampling my seedlings! I’ve told you, Dottie Howard, ‘Stay out of my yard!’” Dottie had laughed then. “You Murtaughs know better!” Mrs. Miner had called to our retreating backs. Pulling Billy along, Marie and I had exchanged a worried glance, but galloped on.
All that fleeted through my mind as we crossed Provident Avenue and headed toward Green Bay. Feeling a bit wary and winded now, I said, “Dottie, I’m only allowed three blocks. That’s my boundary.”
“Yeah, don’t worry, we’re stopping up here,” she reassured me.
And we turned down a long gravel driveway and entered a back garden.
“Who lives here?” I asked. No response to that, but just a whispered, “Come on! Come on! You’ve got to see this!” We moved toward the back of the garden, me imitating her stealthy backward glances. “What are we doing?” I whispered to her back as she quickly straddled the split-rail fence and hopped into the next yard. With less grace I lumbered over the fence and landed next to her.
“Well?” she asked with eyebrows raised, waiting for my reaction.
Before us stretched a sight unseen in any of the yards we had run through on our block: three taut wires between two posts, holding up vines laden with clusters of perfectly round purple-blue grapes. Aunt Virginia had grapes like this, I remembered, then recalled my mother’s gentle hand stopping mine at Aunt Virginia’s stately table as I reached toward the bowl for a second helping.
Dottie plopped down cross-legged and pulled off a bunch. “Look, you squeeze it and it pops right into your mouth. Don’t eat the skin. Spit the seeds in the pile.” Looking down the row I saw two perfect pyramids of discarded skins and seeds about four feet apart. “Sunday I found this,” she explained, noticing my glance. “That first one’s my pile. That one’s me and Marie’s.”
Suddenly feeling less chosen, I began to squeeze one after another of the grapes I had plucked from that perfect arbor into my watering mouth. Our pile of discarded parts quickly mounted along with an uneasy feeling. “Why didn’t you ask Marie to come with us?” I finally asked.
“Aw, she was feeling all sorry for the old lady,” Dottie replied.
“What old lady?” I asked.
She gestured toward the house. “What a baby. Started crying about her grapes took three years to grow,” she whined in imitation. “Don’t worry. I saw her go out earlier. Look, driveway’s empty.”
My throat clenched as though hands had grabbed around it, and a sickening feeling stretched downward to my stomach. I glanced left and right to see the grapes still hanging, hoping there were enough for the old lady to still enjoy. “I gotta go,” I said getting up slowly, wiping my hands on my seersucker shorts. “My stomach hurts.”
Dottie followed me home. We didn’t gallop, or even trot. At the door, I explained, “The boys are napping. So, you can’t come in.” She turned, and with arms extended leaped over all five steps, landing on the walk below. I watched as she headed next door to the Knight’s house. I turned toward the basement to try and get the purple stain out of my shorts before my mother asked me about it.
Kathy Murtaugh grew up in Winnetka, Illinois with four brothers and a sister. In the late 40′s and early 50′s the neighborhoods exploded with post-war, baby-boom children who were allowed to run free from a very early age. Little did the parents know all that went on. Or maybe they did, but they trusted us to figure things out for ourselves; which, mostly, we did.