Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (9 page)

“I'd like to push Harry's teeth in,” I said.

“What good would that do?” Tootie said.

“I better go inside. My mother might need me,” I said. “My grandmother's here, and my aunt and uncle came last night. They're staying in a motel. I better go in. First, though, I've got to move Prince.”

Tootie helped me untie Prince and put him in the garage. He'd hardly been in the garage the whole time. The whole week. We hadn't used the blankets in the corner. It had never gotten cold enough.

“I'll see you,” I said to Tootie. I walked him a little way down the road. “You better get home fast so your mother doesn't find you missing and starts to worry. She won't know where you are,” I said.

“Yes, she will,” Tootie said.

I turned to go back into the house. I dreaded going inside, and I couldn't stay outside. Across the street I could see Miss Pemberthy sitting at her bedroom window, staring out at me.

I waved at her. In all my life I had never waved at her. Now I did. She disappeared.

Then I went in and sat down and waited for my mother to come and tell me what to do.

All that day people came and went. Some I
knew, some were strangers. Every time my grandmother saw me, she'd put her arms around me.

“Dear child, dear child,” she'd say and start to cry. Nothing else. It got so I couldn't stand to see her coming. As long as they left me alone, as long as no one talked to me, I was all right.

“The funeral will be tomorrow at ten, and the viewing hours will be tonight from seven to nine,” my father said. He was like a conductor announcing the train schedule. “Your mother would like to see you.”

The bedroom was dark. All the shades were pulled. I could see my mother lying in her bed, her arm over her eyes.

“Kate,” she said. Her voice didn't sound like her voice. It sounded as if it belonged to an old person with a bad cold. “Kate, she'll be our little angel now.”

I wanted to ask what Dad meant when he said, “The viewing hours will be tonight from seven to nine,” but I couldn't. I stood beside my mother's bed and said, “Can I do anything for you?”

“Just be here,” she said. “Don't go away. I want to know where you are, Kate. You're all I have left.”

I kissed her and went downstairs and out into the light. Ellen Spicer was waiting for me down by the garage. I don't know how she knew I'd go there, but she did.

“The man's coming for Prince today,” I said. “Will you help me get him ready?”

“Sure,” Ellen said. We took off Prince's saddle and bridle and the saddle pad.

“I better brush him,” I said.

“He looks O.K.,” Ellen said.

“It's awful up there,” I said. “At the house.”

“Do you want to come over to our house for a while?” Ellen said.

“I couldn't. I can't walk out on them. What are viewing hours, El?”

She fidgeted with Prince's mane. “I think it's when people come to pay their respects. They come to the funeral home and say they're sorry and they view the body.” She walked to the corner of the garage and picked up the shovel. “Let's go scoop up the turds,” she said.

“You mean they put Joss out there for people to look at?” I shouted. “I won't do it. And I won't let anyone else do it, either.”

“It's the way people show how much they cared for the person who died and for the person's family,” Ellen said. “That's all. When my grandfather died our whole family went. It isn't too bad.”

“Your grandfather is not Joss,” I said coldly.

“If you don't want to go, tell them. They'll probably let you stay home,” Ellen said.

Mr. Essig's van pulled in at the top of the driveway. He got out. “Hey,” he called, “wanted to make sure I had the right place. Got Prince ready, have you?”

“Yes,” I said, “he's ready.”

Sam appeared around the corner of the garage. “I figured you might be here,” he said.

Mr. Essig brought the van down to the garage door. He opened up the back of it so Prince could walk in.

“Where's the little one?” he said. “Where's the birthday girl?”

Sam and Ellen and I stood there. I gave Prince a final kiss on his soft nose.

“She's not here,” I said.

“Too bad.” Mr. Essig closed the van. “Tell her I said hello.”

We watched him as he drove off. Prince looked out at me. He looked very sad.

“My mother feels terrible,” Sam said into the stillness. “About last night when you called. She didn't know, Kate.”

I nodded, unable to speak. They let me alone. They were good friends. There was nothing to do now except wait until seven tonight.

“You don't have to go if you don't want
to, Kate,” my aunt said. “I think it would please your mother and father if you did, but I also think they'd understand if you didn't.”

It had become important that I go. I would never see Joss again. We got to the funeral home about a quarter to seven. A lot of men in black suits walked around. They helped my mother and grandmother and aunts out of the car. They started to help me, but I got away from them.

I had never seen a coffin, but when I saw it I knew it was a coffin. My mother and grandmother and aunts knelt down beside it. They closed their eyes and prayed. My father stood by the door.

“If I can just get through tomorrow, I think I'll be all right,” he said to his brother, who had come from Rhode Island.

My mother looked up from her praying.

“Where's Kate?” she said. One of the men came over to me. He didn't touch me, which was a good thing for him. I walked over and knelt down beside my mother. I didn't pray. I closed my eyes and said to Joss, “I'm sorry. I wish it'd been me. It should've been me. It would've been better if it'd been me.”

When I got up my nerve to look at her, Joss seemed to be smiling at me out from under her eyelids. Her arms were at her sides. She looked the way she'd looked a couple of nights ago when I'd turned on the light during the storm. She looked as if she were asleep. She had a little smile on her face. Any minute she might hop out of there and go down to ride Prince. She looked happy and not at all dead. I was glad I'd seen her. If I'd never looked, I would've always been afraid of how it would be.

A big lady I didn't recognize came up to me. It was Mrs. Essig in a dress, which is why I didn't recognize her. Her girl friend Sheila was with her.

“We're sorry for your trouble,” she said to my mother and father. They said, “Thank you.” Sheila didn't say anything. I shook her hand, and Mrs. Essig hugged me.

Mr. and Mrs. Simms, Tootie's parents, whispered, “Tootie wanted to come, but we just didn't know.”

“It's all right,” I said. They should've let him come.

Mr. and Mrs. Watcha shook hands with my father.

“You take care of your folks now,” Mrs. Watcha said to me.

“Thank you,” I said back.

Sam and his whole family came. Sam and his brother stood off to one side, looking uncomfortable and unhappy.

A lot of people came to pay their respects. My face felt as if it were made of glass. If someone tapped it, it would fall into a million pieces. One of the men drove my mother and grandmother and aunts home. My father and I stayed. My mother's cousin Mona was there.

My father's brother said to me, “Come along, Kate, let's go home.” It was nine o'clock. My father stayed. He was the last one. When I looked back, he was kneeling by Joss's side, his head bent. I had never seen my father pray before. He was not a religious man.

It's a good thing something takes over
and clouds your mind when someone you love dies. It's so awful, so unbelievably awful and terrible and everything bad, that people couldn't manage otherwise, I think. We got through Joss's funeral somehow. I don't remember too much about it. The thing that's clearest in my mind is the sound of the earth being dropped onto the coffin. That I will remember always. My mother and father had said, “No flowers.” Still, there were flowers, too many flowers. The odor was sickening. There was a blanket of white roses covering the coffin. I had always liked white roses. Never again.

We rode in a limousine to and from the cemetery. I'd never ridden in one before. Neither had Joss. It was a very classy car.

Afterwards relatives and friends came back to our house. My mother must've taken some tranquilizers because she sort of floated through the whole thing. Her eyes looked peculiar. She wasn't herself. My father was like a general directing his troops. He busied himself with all kinds of little things. People sent telegrams. Every time Western Union called or delivered one to the door, my father recorded it and who had sent it in a notebook.

“People are very kind,” he kept saying. “They go to such trouble.” His brother Frank stood with his arms folded across his chest. He never let my father out of his sight. Frank was five years older than my father. They were good friends.

Finally everyone left. My mother went to lie down. My grandmother started to clean up the kitchen. Mona came in and said she'd do it. My grandmother went to lie down. I helped Mona put away the dishes. She didn't know where they went.

“Be good to your mother and father, Kate,” Mona said. “They're going to need a lot of love and patience.” I nodded. How about me?

“If I can help,” Mona said slowly, “if it would make any difference to talk, I'd listen, Kate.”

I'd always thought of Mona as my mother's cousin and an older lady. She wasn't that old.

“Joss was their favorite,” I said. “If I'd died instead of her, maybe they wouldn't feel so bad.” It felt better just to say it out loud.

“You know something?” Mona folded the dish towel and hung it up. “I bet Joss would've felt the same way. If it'd been you, she might've said the same thing. And both of you would've been wrong. I think when a child dies, it's the saddest thing that could ever happen. And the next saddest is the way the brothers and sisters feel. They feel guilty, because they fought or were jealous or lots of things. And here they are, alive, and the other one is dead. And there's nothing they can do. It'll take time, Kate. If you'd like, I'd love to have you come in and spend a weekend with me. We could go to the museums and maybe to the theater. How about it?”

“Yes,” I said, “that might be nice. Later that might be fun.”

“I'm thinking of getting married, Kate,” she told me, smiling. “I'd like you to meet him.”

“That's good,” I said. She wouldn't need Joss and me to find her a husband. She'd managed on her own.

I had to stop thinking about Joss and me. I had to begin thinking of me. Only me.

“I'm going out to ride my bike for a while,” I said. “If anyone wants me, I'll be back in a little while.”

I rode without any plan, really. But I guess I did have a plan because I was on the way to Essig's before I knew it. I don't know why I went there. To see Prince, I guess. To see Mrs. Essig. I hoped Mr. Essig wouldn't be there. For once, I got my wish.

The yard was deserted. The same beat-up cars were parked in front. I went over to the fence and leaned on it. I'd forgotton to bring Prince a treat. He snuffled and then ignored me.

I went up the steps and knocked on the door. Mrs. Essig was watching one of those game shows on television. There was a lot of screaming and hollering because some lady had just won a car. Those shows are disgusting. I hope I'm never that greedy.

She let me in and turned off the set. Without asking, she poured a cup of coffee for me and one for herself.

“When we read about it in the paper,” Mrs. Essig said, stirring, not looking at me, “I said to Bert, ‘Bert,' I said, ‘that has got to be the saddest thing I've ever heard.' That little girl was like some sort of special person, you know? She was so gay, so, I don't know, so clean, if you know what I mean. So alive.”

I nodded. It was a good way to describe Joss. I drank some coffee.

“I never had any kids,” Mrs. Essig said. “I had three misses, you know, miscarriages. Like, I got pregnant and then in my third month I lost the baby. Three times. I figured somebody was trying to tell me something. Then the doctor tied my tubes. ‘That's it,' Bert said.”

She reached out and put her hand over mine. “But I always thought if I did have a kid, I'd want it to be just like Joss.”

“Yes,” I said.

“When my girl friend Sheila heard, she cried,” Mrs. Essig said in wonder. “I never saw a girl cry like she did. I didn't even know Sheila
could
cry, if you want to know.”

I started to laugh.

“Did her eyelashes come off?” I said. I laughed harder and harder until I was crying. Mrs. Essig took me in her arms and let me cry. Her bosom was like a gigantic cushion, soft and comforting. When I stopped crying, she gave me a wad of tissues and another cup of coffee.

“I guess I better get going,” I said when I'd finished. “I feel better.”

She saw me to the door.

“Come any time,” she said. “Any time at all.”

I promised I would. I might never go back. I'll have to see. On my way home I pedaled as hard as I could. By the time I reached Comstock Hill, I was out of breath. I got off and pushed my bike up.

Maybe Mona was right. Maybe, if I'd died, Joss would be as sad and lonely and feel just as guilty as I did now. Because, here I was, breathing and seeing and everything. And there she was, where she was. Wherever she was. Gone. Gone forever. The forever is the tough part.

I never realized before what a good person Mona is. I like her and I think she likes me. I can talk to her about things.

My bones feel hollow with loneliness.

Suddenly I got the mental picture of the doctor tying Mrs. Essig's tubes. He reached down into her stomach and tied them in a neat bundle, with a bow on top, like a birthday present. I smiled to myself. Joss would've gotten a kick out of that.

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