Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (7 page)

Tootie got quite bold. After all, he was used to horses. He went right up to Prince, proffering a lump of sugar on his outstretched palm.

Tootie's older brother Harry shouted in a gruff voice, “Back off, baby, he might attack.” But Tootie stood his ground. He reached up and casually patted Prince's nose. I was delighted. Harry was the main Tootie tormenter in the family. For once, Tootie was the top man. He knew exactly what he was doing.

“He won't bite me,” Tootie kept saying in a hearty voice. “You won't bite me, will you, old boy?” I knew he was scared, but he didn't back off. Harry kept saying, “What a gas!” over and over, trying to pretend that he hadn't noticed that for once Tootie had the upper hand.

It got to be suppertime. The crowd started to disperse. Either their stomachs or their mothers and fathers called them. Sam was going to a concert with his brothers. He said he'd check in in the morning. Pretty soon we were alone—Joss, me, Harry and Tootie.

“You better come home with me or you'll catch it from Dad,” Harry said.

“Oh, it's all right for him to stay,” Joss said loftily. “My mother called up your mother and asked if Tootie could stay for dinner. It's my birthday and I want him there. Your mother said it was all right if we brought him home. You can just run along, Harry.”

I could've kissed her. The look on Tootie's face practically lit up the air around him.

“Yeah, just run along, Harry,” he said happily. “I get to stay for dinner.”

“Big baby,” Harry muttered.” Stays for dinner with his girl friend.”

My mother called us then, and we ran, leaving Harry and Prince together in the dusk. The mosquitoes were beginning to bite like fury. I hoped a large one would get hold of Harry and hang on until it'd drained him dry.

For dinner we had lasagna, garlic bread, salad, and my father opened a bottle of red wine when we had eaten the cake and ice cream. I had a small glass, and Tootie and Joss had ginger ale in wine glasses.

Joss opened her presents at the table. My mother and father gave her a pair of pale yellow jodhpurs and a riding crop. I gave her a saddle pad so that the saddle she'd borrowed from Anne Tracy, who lives down the street, wouldn't rub Prince. She put Tootie's rock by her plate with the other things.

“A toast,” my father said, lifting his glass. “To the birthday girl. May she live to be old and wise and have lots of horses.”

“And may she get a good job so she can afford to feed all those horses,” my mother said.

“And may she not get to look like a horse the way people get to look like their dogs,” I added.

Tootie wanted to toast Joss too. He lifted his glass, which was already empty. “May she be as nice when she gets big,” he said. We all cheered and clapped, and my father got up and came around the table to kiss Joss. We took Tootie home, then went right to bed.

“It was the best birthday,” Joss said sleepily. She'd been out four times to check on Prince. If it hadn't been for the mosquitoes, she would've slept in the garage. “It was perfect. I'll see you in the morning,” and she was asleep.

“One if by land, two if by sea, guess who's
looking out the window, it's Miss Pemberthy,” I said the next morning. Not a bad poem just on the spur of the moment, I thought. “She's got her nose pressed against the window. I'll bet she'll be on the telephone in five seconds.”

Joss had saddled up Prince and ridden him around the back yard before anyone was awake. Then, after breakfast, we rode him bareback with me in the rear and took him up in the front yard. It's a funny thing about a horse. When you're standing next to him he doesn't look that big, but, boy, when you're on his back, it seems a long way to the ground.

I put my arms around her waist and held on.

“You're strangling me,” Joss protested, so I let up a little. Only a little, though.

We heard the telephone ring inside, and my mother answered. “Oh, yes, of course, how are you, Miss Pemberthy?” she said in a loud voice.

“What'd I tell you?” I said. “She'll blow her cork. She'll imagine the whole neighborhood is turning into one huge stable, covered with horse turds.”

“She probably had her binoculars out last night when Mr. Essig came over,” Joss said. Long ago we'd decided Miss Pemberthy spent about twenty-two hours a day at the window with her binoculars trained on our house. At her age she didn't need much sleep. There wasn't anything she missed. Once, in the middle of the night, my mother and father had to rush me to the hospital because they thought I was having an appendicitis attack. It turned out to be just a severe stomach-ache, but they'd scarcely gotten back inside the house when the phone rang and it was Miss Pemberthy asking what was wrong.

“Should I?” Joss turned Prince in the direction of the “NO TURNING” sign. “A turd is what I think it is, right?”

“A turd is a piece of excrement,” I told her. I learned that from Ellen Spicer. When she wasn't combating dry skin, she spent a lot of time learning what she thought were dirty words out of the dictionary. Turd is a very descriptive word. It's too bad I don't get a chance to use it more often.

“I'll be right back,” I said and slipped off Prince. “I want to hear what they're saying.”

When I picked up the extension in the kitchen, Miss Pemberthy was saying, “I simply could not believe my eyes. I could not believe these old eyes of mine. A horse across the street! In a neighborhood that is certainly not zoned for horses. Oh, my, what a shock!”

“My dear Miss Pemberthy,” my mother said in a special voice she uses for tense occasions, “yesterday was Joss's birthday. She's been saving her money for ages. She's just rented him. For a week.… No, she doesn't own the horse.”

Between sputters, Miss Pemberthy said, “I cannot permit such desecration of a first-class neighborhood. I will have to report this to the proper authorities.”

“I'm sorry you feel this way,” my mother said, her voice sliding from soft to sharp. “As I said, it's only for a week. Joss has every intention of keeping him inside our property line. She has promised us, and she's a very trustworthy child.”

There was a silence. I could hear Miss Pemberthy breathing. “Far be it from me,” she said, “to interfere with a child's pleasure. Far be it from me. I was a child once myself, you know,” and she made a wheezing sound that I guess was laughter. “I do hope the animal doesn't befoul your grass. Or infest the neighborhood with flies. Horses attract flies in vast multitudes, you know.”

“Oh, dear, I really must run,” my mother said. “Something's burning on the stove. Do come for a visit some day soon.” And my mother hung up.

“I listened in,” I told her. “You did a good job, Mom.”

“Well, at least I held my temper,” my mother said, proud of herself. We had always been taught to respect old people, but I could tell even my mother and father found Miss Pemberthy tough to take.

Joss came to the back door, leading Prince by his bridle. “Could I have a treat for him, Mom?” she said.

“What's he done to deserve one?” my mother said. “I've got one old apple he can have, and that's it. And listen, that was Miss Pemberthy on the phone complaining about Prince being here. I told her you would only ride him within our property line. Make sure you do.”

Still holding Prince, Joss stuck out her skinny little butt, put her thumb on it, and waggled her fingers in the air.

“Tough beans on old Miss Pemberthy,” she said.

“Joss!” my mother said, laughing. “Don't be disrespectful.”

“Why not? She's disrespectful to me,” Joss said. “I'm a person too, you know.”

“Miss Pemberthy's mother died when she was thirteen,” I told them. “Did you know that?”

They looked at me, surprised.

“No,” my mother said.

“She told me, that night I took the package over,” I said. “She said her father got married a year later and she felt in the way. She planned on making her father happy, but he got married, and he called his new wife ‘Darling.'”

“Well,” my mother said slowly, “that must've been very hard on her. Maybe it helps to explain her somewhat, don't you think?”

“No,” Joss said stubbornly. “She was thirteen about a thousand years ago, anyway. Just because her mother died doesn't mean she has to be such a witch.”

“Oh, give her a break, Joss,” I said. “How'd you like it if your mother died and your father got married again right away?”

“Dad wouldn't do that,” Joss said. “Would he, Mom?”

“He better not,” my mother said lightly. “I'm glad you told me, Kate.”

“Do you think something like that scars you for life?” I asked her.

“It might if you didn't have much else to think about,” my mother told me. “It's hard to say what makes scars and what doesn't.”

Sam came loping around the side of the house.

“Hey,” he said, “I'm here to ride the critter. I brung some grub along just in case the Indians attack the fort and lay siege to the settlers.” He had on a hat with a floppy brim which was too big.

“You are some sad-looking cowboy,” I said. “What's in the sack?”

“Like I said”—Sam was really getting into the wild West routine—“I brung some grub.”

He had three deviled-ham sandwiches, four bananas, a package of cookies, and one hard-boiled egg.

“The egg's for Prince,” he said.

“Horses don't eat eggs, dummy,” Joss said.

“How do you know? Did you ever give him one?” Sam asked.

She held out the egg for Prince. He flared his nostrils and breathed all over it and turned it down. Then he blew down Joss's neck. “That's the way he shows affection,” she said. “It tickles.”

She popped the egg in her mouth.

“Joss,” my mother said, “you might get germs.”

We let Sam ride Prince awhile, then we sat under the apple tree and ate Sam's lunch. Joss told him about Miss Pemberthy's calling up to complain.

“You've got to look at it this way,” Sam said, waving a banana at us, “she's got nothing else to do but complain. She's paranoid.”

“O.K.,” I said, “you just learned that. I can tell by the way you tossed it into the conversation that you never heard that word before. What's it mean?”

Sam grinned. “I thought you'd never ask,” he said. “It means she thinks the world's out to get her. She has delusions of persecution.”

Joss said, “When you start talking like that, I'm leaving. Anyway, I have to walk Prince to dry him off.”

“If I didn't hate her so much, I'd feel sorry for her,” I said.

“Yeah.” Sam ate the last cookie. “People used to say that about Hitler, too.”

For the rest of my life, if ever again I'm
totally happy, which is doubtful, or completely sure I'm immortal, I'll be afraid that something terrible is about to happen.

Because that's the way it was that last week with Joss.

Every morning was more beautiful than the one before. Joss was up and out riding Prince before I woke up. When she wasn't riding him, she was polishing his coat the same way she polished her boots. Prince gleamed. You could almost see your face in his side, he was so shiny.

We ate our breakfast sitting on the grass, with the mist still in little patches, making wet spots on the seats of our jeans.

Joss gave rides to all the kids who came around, even the little ones, as long as their mothers said it was all right. I held on to the bridle and Joss would hoist them up and sit with her arms around their waists.

“Boy, imagine the mint of money we'd make if we were charging your basic ten cents a ride,” I said. “You might even make enough to rent Prince for another week.”

Joss's eyes sparkled at the thought. “The only trouble with that is,” she said, “I'd feel like such a rotten person, charging for rides.”

The only person she refused a ride to was Jim Schneider. He slouched over one day, his hands jammed into his pockets.

“How about a ride on the old nag for a real expert?” he said.

“No,” Joss said. “You're too big. Anyway, I only give rides to my friends.”

Jim Schneider's face got red and he swore at her. “Looks like he's about to fall over in a heap, anyway,” he said. “He's probably got horse rot, through and through.”

“I'd say you're about halfway gone with people rot right this minute,” I said.

Jim stomped off, using foul language to make himself feel better.

The admiration on Joss's face was very pleasing to me. “You really let him have it, Kate,” she said, hugging me. “I didn't think you had it in you.”

“Neither did I, to tell the truth,” I said.

Ellen Spicer rode her bike over. She had a bag full of cabbage leaves with holes in them for Prince. “My mother had to peel half the cabbage away before she got to the good stuff,” she explained. Prince didn't mind. He chomped them up with enjoyment. We lay on the grass and talked about how the summer was shaping up.

“You have a horse at least,” Ellen said mournfully. “I've got this creepy little cousin coming to stay with me. She's only nine. I heard my mother telling my father she was a young nine too. My mother says I have to be nice to her. What does she think I'm going to do—throw her down the stairs or something? She probably still plays with dolls. She'll also probably get homesick and my mother will make me give her the best piece of chicken and the biggest piece of cake.”

Ellen put her chin in her hands and felt sorry for herself. Joss went around with a huge shovel, scooping up Prince's turds. She deposited them in a heap back of the garage. My father said he might as well get some good out of that horse, so we were making a nice pile of manure for next year's garden.

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