A Picket Fence In Pawpaw: Mainstream Literary Fiction
A Novel For Adults And Young Adults Alike
"Pawpaw loved bubbles. You know, the liquid soap kind made with a wand."
So begins my second novel, A Picket Fence in Pawpaw, a story of youthful innocence giving way to adult wisdom. The story is told by 36-year-old Minnie Mincolla, once the child known as "Mouse."
Here, you'll find the first chapter for, I hope, your reading pleasure.
The Prologue: I know some folks skip prologues, but if you're not one of them and would like to read that part first for some backstory, it's available here....
- My New Novel: A Picket Fence In Pawpaw
Picket fences can enclose not only what seem to be perfect houses and perfect lives but also small-town thinking. In A Picket Fence in Pawpaw, thirty-six year-old Minnie Mincola takes us to Pawpaw, Pennsylvania, where this tale of the people who...
A Picket Fence in Pawpaw - CHAPTER ONE
"What kind're you gonna get?"
That's what Jeremy would ask me every time we'd step up to the window. He's my father's sister Nora's son, with coke bottle glasses since the age of six and the whitest, unbleached teeth I've ever seen. He's one of the few males in the Prine lineage to have that trait. The girls usually get the good teeth and 20/20 vision.
Jeremy and I not only grew up together but were best of friends since we both sucked on bottles of raw milk while splashing around in our grandparents' plastic baby pool, wearing nothing but diapers and sun block. During my first dozen years, I spent more time with him than with anyone else. I preferred the company of boys to that of the girls I knew and avoided frills as much as possible.
My, how things can change. Now it's very feminine accouterments. Lingerie, makeup, fine-smelling lotions. To the twelve year-old called Mouse, however, those sorts of trappings made little sense in the real world. They weren't practical. Clothes got dirty when you lived and played hard, makeup smudged and caused pimples, perfumes attracted only bees and made people smell ... well, very unnatural. If only that Mouse could have seen and smelled herself now. She'd have said I was a completely different person.
It was the typical routine every time we'd go for ice cream. Jeremy and I would stare at the eternally unchanged list of Chilliwah mix-ins scotch-taped to the glass, as if we didn't remember what our choices were.
I'd reply, "Don't know, peanut butter cup maybe, what're you gonna get?"
Then Jeremy's next line was, "Maybe M&M, but I don't know."
People waiting behind us would start fidgeting and grumbling and rightly so; Jeremy and I never did start the process of making up our minds until it was our turn to order.
"Yeah, I don't know, either," I'd then always say. "Had peanut butter cup last week."
By that time, our usuals would be on the sill, impaled by red plastic spoons.
Every Sunday after church, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, my father's parents would take us to Guber's Soft Freeze, a small, beige-gray box of a building, surrounded by a cracked and rutted paved lot and weathered picnic tables near the Sock, as we locals called that spirited river. Pawpaw always ordered toffee Chilliwahs, until he got dentures. Then the candy stuck between his gums and false teeth. Grandmaw would get so agitated when he'd remove his choppers, as he called them, right there in public and pick out the "dang stuff." Whatever he meant by that at any given moment. So she made him give up caramel, nuts and toffee, among other things, and switch to banana splits. Pawpaw never again seemed quite as excited about our Sunday trips to Guber's. I felt bad for him.
I was certain my grandfather had an ulterior motive for those ice cream excursions, though. His name was Boy McGraw. Every time we'd get ourselves settled and start working on our treats, along would come the old man called Boy in his beat-up El Camino. We'd hear that guttural junker approaching moments after it turned out of his pot-holed driveway to belch, buck and grumble its way down the big hill.
"Hey, Boy!" would come from picnic tables and standing clusters all around. People liked him as much as Pawpaw, so they were careful to greet both men well when both were in the same place at the same time. I guess nobody wanted either of them to get the notion that sides were being taken. Whatever those sides might have been.
Pawpaw would become very animated when Boy came around. With other people, that is. As a rule, my grandfather was amiable regardless, but you'd be hard-pressed to see anyone more on than he was when Boy was in the audience. It was downright embarrassing. I'd lower my head and concentrate hard on my Chilliwah.
And that's what I did on one particular Sunday during my thirteenth year, when Pawpaw yelled, "Ay, I-mo-gene!" and raised his long, skinny arms high. He was addressing the always impeccably groomed Mrs. Imogene Guber. On account of owning not only the ice cream stand but also a pest extermination company and the Laundromat, the Gubers were regarded like royalty.
"Hey, hon, don't forget about supper on Tuesdee!"
Pawpaw announced the occasion to all present and puffed himself up, like he and Grandmaw would be dining with the King and Queen of England. Although, in our town that would have been far less auspicious than socializing with the Gubers. My grandfather stole a very obvious glance at Boy to see if he were paying attention, but Boy made like he was consumed by whatever he and Chubby were discussing. That was generally the way it went.
"Ya bet," Imogene replied with a polite smile, then disappeared into the back of the building. She wanted no part of the Pawpaw versus Boy competition, either. Individually, she liked them both, as many did, but together they were too much to tolerate for long. Most folks escaped as quickly as they could.
Town meetings were another story. I figured that was one reason why so many people stopped going; once they were there, it was uncouth to leave until the production was over. And those meetings weren't ever over until the wee hours of the morning due to all the disagreement.
Whatever Pawpaw's position on any issue was always the opposite of Boy's opinion. Each would try to speak before the other, so he could be sure of stating his true stance. He who went second would have no choice of what position to take, you see.
Not that Pawpaw and Boy were the only ones who argued. Goodness no. They were just the most consistent. Poor Mayor Quirk broke I don't know how many impromptu gavels and spewed more than a few cuss words over those ridiculous debates. And he stopped showing up at Guber's on Sundays because he had to save his energy for the next town meeting. That's what Jeremy and I concluded. Instead, our Mayor got his jumbo-size cookie dough Chilliwahs on Saturdays, when Pawpaw and Boy were fishing. Not together exactly, but close enough so they could see what each other was reeling in.
Once the theatrics would die down after Boy's arrival at Guber's, things usually reverted to that lazy, mid-day murmur of folks catching up on the gossip since the day before. On that one particular Sunday, however, something a bit different started brewing. I'd been working away at my peanut butter cup Chilliwah like always, while Jeremy fired ice cream-covered M&Ms at me, getting the color coating on the scratchy, plaid halter dress and stiff, white blouse Mom made me wear to church. Little Jimmy Tripp dropped an ice cream cone and started wailing, and Mrs. Tripp did the same when a bird blessed her purse. Those were the very ordinary events.
But then an energized tone of chatter began to filter through the crowd. I knew something was up, but figured either the Tuttles were expecting baby number nine or Mr. Peabody's mailbox had been vandalized for the umpteenth time. Then the buzz found its way to our table, thanks to middle-aged gossip monger Maxine Waldorf. She always made certain everybody in town knew everything about everybody else, so if you didn't find something out otherwise, you could be sure Maxine would fill you in on however much she knew. Or most everybody thought so, anyway.
"Have you heard?" she squeaked, looking as though the big secret would bust through her heavily decorated eyes if she didn't release it at once. Maxine slid onto the bench, right up next to Pawpaw, and put her hand on his back. I tipped my head and watched gold-painted fingernails drag up and down over his spine.
My grandfather didn't answer right off, on account of the big piece of banana he was working on.
"Oh, do tell," Grandmaw replied with obvious I-don't-give-a-hoot in her voice. She was suddenly intent on peeling a small remnant of green paint off the tabletop.
Jeremy said, "Yeah, Maxine! What's goin' on?" And he was every bit as sincere as he sounded.
I half stood and bent forward for a better view of our informant, while Maxine kept her eyes on Pawpaw's bulging cheek.
"Well!" she began with a bounce. "I heard this from Donna Lee, who heard it from Leonard, who knows a guy just got hired on for the job." She checked over her shoulder, for what was anyone's guess, then leaned in. Her nose and mine were inches apart in front of Pawpaw's chest when she said, "Somebody's gone and bought those four lots--Calhoun's place and the three others--an's gonna level 'em and build a house!"
"No kiddin," I replied but couldn't come up with anything more. Although, I was certainly intrigued.
The four parcels Maxine was referring to formed a square, with streets on all sides. Begley and Hill (which is flat, by the way) running east-west, Pearce and Guber (yes, named after the imperial family of Pawpaw) going north-south. Each lot wasn't very big, maybe a quarter-acre apiece, but together it was about four times more than most non-farm families in Pawpaw owned.
The lot on Hill and Guber was Dickie Calhoun's property, but it had only a concrete slab on it for I don't know how long. At least five years. (I didn't start paying attention to those sorts of details until I was around seven.) Mr. Calhoun had planned to put some kind of structure on the lot and start a business, but never could make up his mind what business to start. I'd heard talk of a self-storage facility, a pet salon, even a combination coffee, gun and live bait shop. But Dickie continued working at the quarry, as he'd been doing and complaining about for thirty-some-odd years, and the slab sat there doing nothing at all. Dickie did keep the grass on his downtown lot mowed and trimmed though, so he owned a very manicured slab.
Of the other three parcels, one had a drab, burnt-out building that once had been a personal care home, another an abandoned trailer with a tax lien on it, and the fourth was full of weeds and dog poop because that's where many dogs who lived downtown went to go potty.
My grandfather at last finished chewing, but Grandmaw reached over and wiped a bit of chocolate sauce off his upper lip, as he began to open his mouth. "Uh-huh," she said vaguely. "Thank you for the information, Miss Waldorf. You have yourself a real nice day now."
But Pawpaw wasn't ready to let the matter go. Not that Maxine was about to budge, either.
"So who around here has that kinda money to be buyin' up a whole block?" he asked Grandmaw, this time deflecting her hand as it moved towards a red sprinkle on his lower lip.
Maxine was quicker to reply. "According to what I hear, it's nobody from this area. That's the thing, though, nobody seems to know who these people are. Leonard told Donna Lee some contractor from the city's comin' all the way here to oversee the job."
"What city?" Pawpaw asked, still looking at Grandmaw, as I said the same to Maxine.
Grandmaw said, "Well how should I .... "
And Maxine told Pawpaw, "I'm not sure. But he's hirin' a few of our own to do some of the work."
Now my grandfather shifted in her direction and frowned intensely at the table. "You mean to tell me Calhoun don't know who bought his place?" Then he closed his eyes and said, "No, Miss Waldorf, you gotta get your information straight before you go makin' announcements."
"I got it right, all right. All he knows is a name. Bowman or Borman or somethin'. But, otherwise, he doesn't have a clue. Leonard told Donna Lee some agent did all the talkin' for whoever these Bermans are. Must be real wealthy or stuck up, for sure, if they can't even come shake hands on a deal." Maxine pursed her lips and took on a haughty, mocking tone. "Have to have somebody else conducting their business for them. Lord, I tell you."
There was a significant moment of silence as we all watched Pawpaw, waiting for his next comment. But he seemed distracted.
"Didn't know Dickie was considering selling," said Grandmaw, apparently now a bit interested, though she tried not to show it too much. She turned her attention to Jeremy, licking her finger and rubbing something invisible off his cheek. Jeremy didn't seem to mind.
"He wasn't, really," said Maxine, again addressing my grandfather, who was chewing his lip and squinting at nothing in particular. "But somebody made him a decent offer, I guess, and he grabbed it right up. Musta been a real sweet price, cuz Dickie's gone and bought himself a brand-new motorcycle an's even talkin' about getting a tattoo!"
"Coo-ool," said Jeremy, jutting his head forward and back like a chicken.
But I didn't see what the big deal was. Lots of people in Pawpaw had tattoos. My grandfather had always thought the practice unsophisticated, and, back then, I tended to blindly agree with him on most everything.
As expected, Pawpaw shook his head. "Now, why in the world would he wanna go messin' hisself up like that? That fine wife o' his won't be puttin' up with no such foolishness."
"Well, he got the motorbike, now didn't he," my grandmother pointed out. "Erlene always said that'd happen over her cold body."
"Motor-cycle," Maxine corrected her.
And Pawpaw said, "Yeah, well, then I guess somebody better get the coroner on up to the Calhoun place."
"Mrs. Calhoun's dead?" Jeremy shouted, exhaling part of an orange-coated M&M onto the back of my hand. Mrs. Calhoun was our favorite teacher of all time.
"No, you moron," I informed him with a kick, forgetting the anatomy of the picnic table and doing my own shin some damage in the process. I was tough about pain though and didn't even wince. I said, "He's joking, stupid," and flicked the blob of chocolate back across the table, hitting Jeremy on the forehead. Grandmaw wiped it off.
Took a good five minutes for the word of truth to spread and catch up with the misinformation my cousin had broadcast. Until then, there were some very upset people holding melting ice cream cones, sundaes and Chilliwahs.
Pawpaw pushed aside the rest of his liquefied banana split and faced Maxine, who stuck her ample bosom in his direction. I leaned on the table again and looked from Maxine's chest, the mid-line of her brazier evident through the translucent pink blouse, to Grandmaw, who rolled her eyes.
"Now," said Pawpaw, raising a finger. He paused to unfold and don the spectacles he carried in his breast pocket, as if they'd help clarify the situation. "You're sayin' that some mystery folks from we-don't-know-where sent somebody on over here to buy them four lots, then hired somebody to come hire our folks to build one house on the place."
Pawpaw said, "Well," and everybody at and near our table perked up to hear his words of wisdom. (I swear, that E.F. Hutton commercial was based on my very own grandfather.) Indulging himself with the suspense, he removed his glasses and held the oblong lenses sunward for inspection. Even took time to scoop a spoonful of vanilla soup, a drop of which rolled into his tufted goatee. Pawpaw blocked the onslaught of napkins with his forearm, as both Grandmaw and Maxine tried to wipe his face. He finally said with a lopsided smile, "I guess they got real good taste, then. Whoever they is. This here's the place to be. Don't get n-o-o-o better."
Maxine balked, hands to round hips. "Why, Mr. Prine. Are you saying you don't care who these strangers might be?"
"Didn't know I should. 'Sides, who says they's strange? Prob'ly downright good folks."
"That's sure not what people are sayin'."
"People who?" asked Grandmaw. Loose skin puckered at the corners of her mouth as she too finally made eye contact.
"Just people, that's who," Maxine retorted in what even I thought to be a very childish manner. "Ask Peewee, why don't you. Says they could be spies." Then she winked at me.
Grandmaw put her shaking head in her hands. "Oh for God's sake," she groaned, as Pawpaw laughed out loud, shooting a bit of banana onto Maxine's right breast. She and my grandfather didn't appear to notice, but Jeremy and I nearly busted our seams. My cousin ducked under the table and started howling, but I didn't want to miss any of the conversation. Although, I nearly peed my underpants.
"Aw, I'm tellin' ya," said Pawpaw after suppressing his own chuckles. "Peewee's got the dangdest imagination. An his elevator sure don't go near all the way to the penthouse."
Wasn't that the truth. You didn't have to know much about Peewee to realize he was lacking in mental capacity, only to observe the scar on his forehead. You could still make out the letters all those years later. That is, if you could read letters and words backwards.
Ah, yes, the very entertaining Oscar "Peewee" Mackenzie. Our town would not have been the same without him. Oscar hadn't been an ostentatious class clown, though. Not that I went to school with him; he was eighteen years older. But everyone in Pawpaw knew all the stories about everyone else, so it seemed, including how nicknames came to be. And many residents of Pawpaw had them.
Until Oscar was around eighteen, folks had ignored his quiet eccentricities for the most part and were understanding about his limitations. He was a bit slow in some areas, but, then again, so were many others. Nobody did much of anything fast in Pawpaw, unless it came to getting hay into the barn before the rain, or themselves to the beer distributor before closing time on Saturday. (It didn't open again until Monday morning.) So, in that respect, Oscar wasn't all that different from the rest of our town's population. He just didn't have as much common sense as most and had even less propriety. But people had pretty much left him be. Oscar Mackenzie was starved for attention.
Eventually, Oscar earned his very own nickname on account of the fact he'd stopped growing long before most other boys did. One day, somebody christened him Peewee, and, with the young-man-formerly-known-as-Oscar's assistance, the name stuck and spread rapidly. Folks started greeting him by his new title at every opportunity and patting him on the head--the reason he later gave for his early thinning on top--but that was the extent of it for a short time. He was thrilled to have a special name of his very own.
And that's when Oscar Mackenzie messed up and probably wished he'd never gotten the extra attention he'd craved. I guess it wasn't enough that he had Peewee silk-screened or embroidered on all of his t-shirts, jackets and hats. And apparently he wasn't satisfied by the Me Be Peewee vanity plate or the white Peewees painted on both sides of his red pickup. Or even the black Peewee tattooed on his left arm. Oscar was so proud of his nickname, he went and carved it in his forehead! And I don't mean scratched. He dug it in.
But that isn't the end of it, either. No, there was one important detail the young man known as Peewee failed to consider when he did this to himself: He was looking in a mirror at the time. Well, let me tell you, when he showed up in public the next day, he got plenty of attention. And it wasn't as gentle as "Hey, Peewee!" and head-patting.
The teasing had continued strong and steady ever since.
At first, the little guy was quite put off, but, at some point, I guess he decided to go with the flood of wisecracks and practical jokes and even make the most of it. In his own way, he tried to monopolize the publicity as much as possible and perfected the art of "flingin' the bull turds," as my grandfather described it and once again did on that particular Sunday I was speaking of.
"Be nice, Pawpaw," Grandmaw ordered with a scowl, but I could see by the deepened crow's feet at her temples she was trying not to smile. She wanted to set a good example for Jeremy and me and, with a wagging finger, told my grandfather, "It isn't right to be bad-mouthing folks. You know better."
He said, "Yes, M-a-a-a-w," and blew a kiss across the table.
Maxine grabbed at the air between my grandparents, then opened her hand, pressed her palm to her mouth, and winked at Pawpaw.
Jeremy made a retching sound as he again ducked under the table. This time, it was Grandmaw who gave him the shoe.
And so the news was out. Somebody who wasn't born in Pawpaw was building a house and moving in. That sure didn't happen often. This was big, and folks wouldn't be satisfied until they knew who these newcomers were and why they were moving to Pawpaw. My grandfather was being politically correct, but I was sure I knew better; he was dying to find out as much as anybody. I had a gut feeling things were finally about to get interesting.
A Picket Fence in Pawpaw
You've just read the first chapter of my second novel, now available from Amazon's Kindle store.
Signed copies are also available on my website, HikingWriter.com.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury