Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (6 page)

“This one is from Aunt Grace,” Joss said. “I recognize her writing.” Aunt Grace is my mother's maiden aunt who lives in Nebraska. She sent Joss a handkerchief with “JOSS” embroidered on it in big crooked red letters. Aunt Grace was very old. With the handkerchief came a bulletin on her health.

“Went to see DR. yesterday and he gave me a clean bill of health. The DR. took my blood pressure and he says it's perfect for a woman of my age. Something to celebrate, eh? The DR. says, however, to watch my intake of cholesterol. At my age I can't afford any fooling around. Love to all.”

When we were little kids, we thought DR. was the name of an actual person. We didn't know how to pronounce it.

“I think I'll open Grandmother's last,” Joss said. She had a card from our aunt and uncle in Rhode Island. Inside the card was a slip of paper which said: “We have sent a donation to our favorite charity in your name.”

“That's kind of neat,” I said.

“You wouldn't think so if it was your birthday,” Joss said. “At least if they wanted to do that, they should've asked me what
favorite charity was.”

She had a point.

The third card was from a girl in my class who is sort of sickening. She has a little book in which she writes down all the birthdays of people she knows. She never fails to remember. She must go broke just buying stamps.

“It's from Angela,” Joss said. “Who's Angela?”

“You know. That girl in my class with short brown hair and braces,” I said. “She sends everybody birthday cards.”

“Oh,” said Joss. We went back into the house. Joss sat down at the table. “If she didn't send me what I hope she sent me, I'm in the soup,” she said.

“Maybe Grandmother sent you a book instead of money,” I said. Naturally, Joss and I had a fit of laughing, which of course puzzled my mother and father.

“She could hardly fit a book into an envelope that size,” my mother said, which set us off again.

,” said the card. There was a picture of a little girl on a swing. Slowly Joss opened up the card and a check fell out.

“How much?” I said.

Joss lifted one corner of the check and, with one eye closed, she read it.

“Whew, that's a relief,” she said, wiping her brow. “It's what we thought, Kate. All systems are go.”

Why don't you call him up?” my mother
said. “Wouldn't that be simpler?”

“No,” Joss said. “I've got to go over there to make sure nothing goes wrong.”

My father had given her five new five-dollar bills after she endorsed her birthday check and gave it to him. He must've been prepared. Usually on weekends he's on his uppers and, if we go anywhere, has to borrow from my mother or, if he's desperate, one of us.

Joss went upstairs and got five limp ones from her hiding place. That money had been subject to a lot of wear and tear. Joss changed her secret place every week in case word got out where she hid it and somebody broke into the house.

Tootie was sitting patiently waiting on our front steps. We almost fell over him.

“Here,” he said, handing her the rock wrapped in tissue paper and sealed with about ten yards of Scotch tape that looked as if it'd been used once or twice before. “Happy birthday.”

First she opened the card. Tootie had made it. “YOU ARE A GREAT PERSON,” it said, and inside was a picture of a four-legged animal that had to be a horse.

“It's beautiful, Toot,” Joss said. “It looks just like a valentine.”

“I was going to save it for then, but I decided to give it to you now,” Tootie said.

“I'm glad you did,” Joss said. “Thanks a million.”

Tootie beamed.

“We're off to see the wizard,” Joss said. She took the money out of her money belt, which she'd ordered by mail from L. L. Bean, made a fan from it, which she waved elaborately in front of her face.

“My, my, it certainly is hot today,” she said.

Tootie reacted beautifully. He'd never seen a money fan before. “Boy, is all that yours?” he asked. “Are you getting Prince now? Can I come? Are you going to ride him home?”

“If you're coming, come on,” Joss yelled over her shoulder. She was already halfway down the driveway on her bike. We followed more sedately. Tootie's legs were short, and he couldn't go as fast as Joss and I could. When we got to Essig's, Joss was already there, and Mr. Essig was bargaining with a man in a beat-up tan car with two bashed-in fenders.

“Can't give you more'n fifty for it. At that, it'll take me thirty-five, forty hours' work to fix it up good. Take it or leave it,” Mr. Essig told the man. I guess he decided to leave it because he peeled out in a hurry. That tan car needed a new muffler too.

“Hey, girls!” Mr. Essig flashed his brown teeth and scratched his stomach.

“I've got the money,” Joss told him, her eyes shining. “Can you bring Prince over today, Mr. Essig?”

Discreetly, Mr. Essig extended a huge hand and, just as discreetly, Joss slipped the money inside. His eyes glittered with the joy of feeling folding money so close to his skin. To show his trust, he didn't even count it.

“You got here just in time, babe,” he said. “Got a call from a lady over in Darien who's having a party for her kids and wanted a nice gentle reliable horse for the guests to ride on. Asked for Prince special, she did. Had to tell her no, ma'am, he's already taken. Told you I'd hold him for you. Old Bert Essig's good as his word, eh?”

Sometimes I think Mr. Essig's seen too many movies. He seems to be playing a role lots of times.

Old Bert wrinkled his brow and scratched his ear. He does quite a lot of scratching, I've noticed.

“I'm all jammed up today. Saturday's my busy day,” he said. I looked around. He didn't seem all that busy to me. I've also noticed that people who talk about how busy they are all the time actually aren't.

“The wife and me is going to Trumbull tomorrow to see her folks. How about Monday?”

Joss turned those eyes of hers on him. “Oh, today, please. I've waited such a long time. It's my birthday.”

“Well, now,” Mr. Essig boomed, “why didn't you say so? In that case, today it is. Wait'll I run in and tell Ethel we got a birthday girl visiting. Ethel! Get out here!”

Apparently that was Mr. Essig's idea of running in to tell Ethel.

“Hey, little fella, where'd you come from?” Mr. Essig had caught sight of Tootie, who had been hiding behind me and Joss. Tootie is shy with new people.

“This is my friend Tootie Simms,” Joss said. She gave him a little push, and he said, “Hi,” to Mr. Essig.

Mrs. Essig came out on the porch. She had a new hairdo. Not only that, her hair was a brand-new color. When the sun hit the surface of Mrs. Essig's coiffure, the light was blinding.

“Your hair looks beautiful,” Joss said.

Mrs. Essig patted the swirls and curls and smiled.

“My girl friend Sheila did it for me. She works down at the La Mode beauty salon. She's very creative. I like to get my hair fixed before I go up to see my folks. Come on in and have a cup of coffee. Haven't seen you all in ages.”

“Ethel!” Mr. Essig bellowed. “We've got a birthday girl here. It's the little one's birthday today, and we promised to get Prince over pronto.”

Mrs. Essig's eye lit upon Tootie. “I didn't know you had a little brother,” she said. “Isn't he cute!” She made a move toward him. I think she was going to kiss him. That really would've finished Tootie off for the day. Not only was she a stranger but a lady stranger about to put the moves on him. He hid behind me and hung on to my belt.

“He's just a friend,” I explained. “He came with us to arrange about vanning Prince over.”

I guess she got the message because she said, “All of you come and sit down. I've got a fresh pot on the stove.”

Joss was inside and sitting down in a flash.

“Pot of what?” Tootie said in a hoarse voice.

“Coffee,” I said, dragging him in with me. “Your kitchen is very homey,” I told Mrs. Essig. It was sunny and clean and smelled good.

“You think he's too young?” Mrs. Essig asked, the pot poised in front of Tootie, who remained speechless.

I don't think he'd probably ever had coffee. Certainly not the kind Mrs. Essig brewed.

“He can have a little of mine,” I said.

“Which birthday is this?” Mrs. Essig said, putting the carton of milk on the table. She hardly ever sat down, I noticed. Mostly she circled the table, making sure everyone had what they wanted. She was a good hostess.

“I'm eleven,” Joss said.

“Eleven,” she said. “I remember clear as day when I was eleven. My brother Mike and his girl friend took me to Sherwood Island for the day. We had soda and cooked hot dogs and played soft ball. Afterwards they took me to the movies. Mike bought two bags of popcorn, one for them and one just for me.” She smiled, remembering. “Wait a sec,” she said and went into her bedroom. We heard her opening drawers. Tootie took a sip of my coffee which had plenty of milk and sugar in it. He made a face. I could tell he wanted to spit the coffee out, but I wouldn't let him. “Swallow it!” I hissed, and he did, although he looked a bit shaky.

“Just a little something for you,” Mrs. Essig said. She handed Joss a box wrapped in silver paper.

“You didn't have to do that,” Joss said, her face getting pink.

“I wanted to,” Mrs. Essig said.

“It's beautiful,” Joss said, opening the package. Mrs. Essig had given her a round pin with a horse inside. “I love it.” She pinned it on her front. “Thank you,” she said and kissed Mrs. Essig on the cheek.

“It's nothing.” Mrs. Essig beamed. “I just happened to have it laying around, and I thought you might like it. Some more?” She lifted the coffeepot.

“We've got to go,” I said, giving Joss a warning look. I could tell she was settling in for a long visit. She also is the type of person who finds it difficult to get up and say good-bye. I myself think there's nothing more tiresome than people who say they have to go and then stay around for another half hour. “We've got stuff to do at home.”

We said good-bye and thank you and went out to see when Mr. Essig would bring Prince over.

“I can't promise right away,” he said. “All's I can say is it'll be before nighttime.”

“If you'd only given him half the money and told him you'd give him the other half when he got to our house, I bet he would've brought Prince over in a flash,” I told Joss as we rode home.

“Race you up the hill,” she said. I turned around to check on Tootie. He was huffing and puffing. “Race yourself, you eleven-year-old,” I said. “I'll wait for you-know-who.” But Joss was already halfway up Comstock Hill, her skinny legs pumping like mad, her hair flying. It was her day.

“When is he coming?” Joss asked for the
thousandth time. She'd been pacing the entire afternoon. When she wasn't pacing, she was rushing to see what time it was.

“Call him up,” I said. “Maybe he's forgotten.”

“He wouldn't,” Joss said, looking tragic.

She came away from the phone, beaming. “Mrs. Essig says he's on his way. She said he left about fifteen minutes ago. He should be here any time now.”

We went out to wait. A bunch of kids were collected down the street, waiting. They knew Prince was being delivered today. The older ones made fun.

“Oh, it's a big deal all right,” they said in their special tone of voice, which said they had better things to do than wait around for a rented horse to show up. “Joss is renting a horse. I don't know, I think she said thirty dollars a week. Imagine spending that much money just so's you have a horse in your back yard!”

The little ones did cartwheels and stood on their heads when they weren't darting back and forth, shouting, “I think he's coming!”

I saw Alice Mayberry and Tess Tipler on the fringe of the crowd. They were a year older than I was and had just graduated from the eighth grade. They bought identical white shoes to wear to the prom. I understand they wanted to wear identical dresses too, but Mrs. Mayberry put her foot down. Tess was stout. She was going to be an opera star. At the drop of a hat, she'd fold her hands across her stomach and belt out “Oh, Star of Evening.” Alice sang
Madame Butterfly
and did gymnastic dancing at the same time. They were a couple of stars.

After a lot of false alarms, Mr. Essig's van came into sight. Joss stood at the top of our driveway directing Mr. Essig on exactly how he should back down. We could see Prince's head peering out.

“He knows he's in a strange place,” Joss said. “It'll take him a while to get used to it.”

“Can I have a ride, Joss? Can I? Please, Joss, let me have a ride. Will he bite? Let me feed him. Nice old Prince, nice horsie.”

The voices rose and fell like moths in the twilight. When Prince was installed in our nice neat garage, Mr. Essig drove off.

“I'll be back for him next Saturday,” he said before he went. “Don't forget to water him every day. And don't work him too hard. He ain't as young as he used to be.”

Prince no sooner took a look around to get his bearings than he lifted his tail and went to the bathroom on our clean floor. Naturally that brought down the house.

I could hear Jim Schneider's guffaw above everybody else's. He had the kind of laugh that always sounded as if he'd heard a dirty joke. The Jim Schneiders of this world give me a royal pain.

Alice and Tess went on whispering behind their hands. They are that kind of girl. I think if their hands were tied behind their backs, they wouldn't be able to talk at all, they'd be so inhibited.

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