... The first in the Short Story Series ...
Doris Gaines Rapp
Copyright 2017 Doris Gaines Rapp
Indiana in the 1940’s
Billy Robertson was eleven-years old. His Grampa said he was all-boy and Gramma agreed. He and his older brother and his two sisters lived with their grandparents since their mother died when Billy was a baby. Uncle Walter had the front south bedroom upstairs. He worked the night shift at the factory and spent his weekends playing his violin and working in the yard. Billy often wondered what it would be like to have a mom and dad, a “real” home, even though he loved Gramma and Grampa.
One afternoon, Billy untied a long rope he had attached to a huge tree branch that hung out over the creek, grabbed hold of the flapping end, leaned back into a jump and flexed his knees. The bank was wet so the mud was slick. He gripped the rope tightly until his fingernails nearly dug into the palms of his hands. Throwing his head back, he swung out over the stream, setting himself free from the muddy bank. Billy felt like Eddie Rickenbacker, the Great War flying ace, as he imagined himself soaring out over the dark, wild waves of a mighty ocean.
It was a great late-autumn, Indian-summer afternoon for a boy to go exploring. There was no better place to investigate than down in the Moyer woods. In the spring and summer, the peaceful silence of winter snow gave way to the sounds of buzzing insects and birds scolding one another from high in the trees. Then, in the fall, the smell of burning leaves, the bright colors of autumn, and the sound of the Mohawk, a puffing black steam engine traveling on the clean air, made him positively giddy.
As Billy surveyed his kingdom in the magical woods, he felt something on his leg. “What are you doing down here, boy?” he asked as his German shepherd slid to a stop on the damp leaves and bumped into him. Billy reached down and scratched Moe on his soft, often-petted head. He had left the shepherd back at the house before going scavenging after school. Under a rock along the creek he found a dirty quarter stuck in the mud and a broken pocket knife near a huge tulip tree. Grampa would surely be able to take it to his workshop and smooth out the chipped blade.
Moe wagged his tail and tapped his paw on Billy’s foot. Panting, his tongue curled and dripped spit from his mouth. Waiting patiently, he looked into Billy’s eyes.
“What is it, Moe?” At first Billy didn’t see the note tied to the dog’s collar. “Oh, I see. You’re a messenger today.” He reached down and untied the paper.
“Billy, come home.” That was all the note said but Billy knew if Gramma sent Moe, he’d better head for the house. He stuffed the quarter and the knife into his pocket along with the art-gum eraser he found on the sidewalk outside the school, and grabbed his bike where he left it by the big tree.
Peddling along the path out of the woods, he steered the Schwinn onto the small road that led to the back of the Moyer property. The whole way, Moe trotted along close to Billy’s front wheel herding him back to the path. Billy knew his grandmother had commanded Moe to bring him home, because it had happened many times before. Moe would not neglect his task. The boy popped down the alley for a few yards and then whizzed in through the side gate.
The yard was alive with the last crisp falling leaves of crimson and gold, and the same old black crow that had hung around during the summer. Ol’ Snags, Gramma called it. It would swoop down from the tops of the maple trees and snatch the green sprouts of growing carrots in the garden. Now, the bird just seemed to mock everyone in the Moyer family, sticking around long after the harvesting of the garden and the turning over of the ground. Grampa and Billy had dug the root cellar, lined it with burlap bags and buried the vegetables in it to be uncovered when needed during the next winter. Ol’ Snags sat above on a tree limb watching every shovel full fly from the pit.
As Billy came around the corner, he saw Gramma hurry off the side porch and wave a broom at the crow, trying to shoo the old thief away. Then Ol’ Snags did something strange. It looked down from half-way up the maple tree and into Gertie Moyer’s eyes, flipped his tail feathers at her and flew away.
As Billy neared the house he could hear Gramma snort, "You better fly high enough I can’t see you, Snags. Shoo!” she yelled again. Then she added, “Where is that child? How can an eleven-year-old youngin get away so fast?"
Billy stopped for a moment, wanting a place to hide. He knew he got away with a lot of mischief most of the time. He suspected it was because Gramma hadn’t been feeling well lately.
“There you two are,” she said as she fanned her face with her apron. “Oh my goodness, my breath is short. You are a handful Billy Robertson but I knew Moe would bring you home. He’s the smartest dog I know.”
“What did you need me for?” Billy asked, thinking again about the note his grandmother had sent with Moe.
Gertie clutched her chest. “Let’s get inside. I need to rest a minute.” Gramma led the way into the house. “It’s getting dark. Can’t you see that?”
"What’s wrong, Gramma?” Billy whispered. The boy’s voice sounded gravely in the evening air.
Gramma shook her head. “The night air is giving you laryngitis. You sound like Mr. Simon, the ice delivery man. His throat was hurt in the war ya know.”
Billy went into the kitchen to get his grandmother some water as she headed toward the living room where she plopped down on her little sewing rocker. Her small, four foot, ten and a half inch frame didn’t quite fit some of the other furniture. The sofa and side chairs were just the right size for Grampa and Uncle Walter’s full six feet. “What happened to Mr. Simon, Gramma?” Billy asked as he brought in the water glass.
“No one knows what happened to Peter Simon and he won’t say,” Gramma mumbled. “He’s pretty quiet. He says it just happened. Now, save your voice, Billy so you won’t miss school tomorrow. Just listen to the Philco radio and rest. Your granddaddy will be home soon.”
“Where is Grampa?” Billy asked and sat down on the rug in front of the tall floor model radio. He reached out for Moe, using the dog as a big hairy pillow.
“Your Grampa took the interurban into Elkhart this afternoon. His pension check came in the mail. He’ll be back soon,” Gramma said.
Grandpa Moyer had few pleasures that involved spending money. He had lost one eye while working on the railroad and had retired on a pension of eighty-eight dollars a month. That small monthly income, along with the money he earned off of selling some of his land, and the small amount of cash Uncle Walter contributed was all he had to feed seven mouths. That didn’t leave much money for fun.
Grampa had worked for the railroad since he was ten years old, carrying water to the men as they worked hard laying the rails. Now, Grampa’s only indulgence was a trip into town once a month to deposit his pension check in the bank, buy a small tool at the hardware store, and get a little sack of hard candy at the Five-and-Dime.
“With your granddaddy gone today, I had to sic the dog on you,” Gramma said as she chuckled. “I held my hand under the dog’s jaw and looked right into his bright brown eyes. “Moe,” I commanded, “find Billy.”
Then Billy remembered. “Why did you send Moe to get me Gramma?”
“I needed you to go over to the grocery to get a pound of hamburger,” she said. “I forgot to have you get it earlier. Your grandfather will be home soon and I haven’t started supper.”
“I’ll go right now, Gramma.” he offered and hopped to his feet. Moe untangled himself from where he had landed when he was no longer a head cushion and jumped up as well. Billy reached down and patted his head behind the dog’s ears.
Gramma shook her head. “Not now. I need you to go out to Grampa’s work shop and bring in the small ladder. I need the honey from the top cabinet shelf. Your granddaddy took my step stool out there to glue that first wrung after it broke. It should be dry by now.”
“I’ll get the honey for you, Gramma,” Billy offered.
Gertie shook her head. “No, I have to have the ladder in the house anyway.”
Billy started for the door again. “Step ladder…right.” Then he stopped, “What about the hamburger?”
“I’ll send Moe,” Gramma said.
Moe wagged his tail and danced from his front legs to the hind two when he heard his name. Gramma went to the kitchen and took a small pencil and a piece of paper from a pad she kept in a drawer. She wrote, “1 lb. hamburger. Put it on our bill, please,” on the sheet and signed it, “Mrs. Moyer.”
“Moe,” she called to the shepherd. The dog came to her side and stood ready for instruction. Gertie tied the note to his collar and patted his hind quarter. “Go take it to Mr. Howard, Moe.”
The dog waited at the door for Gramma to let him out. Once Moe was free from the rebounding screen door, Gertie went to the living room window to watch. She saw the Shepherd run across the street and paw at the market door. Mr. Howard came out, removed the note, waved at the Moyer house and went back inside. A few minutes later, Moe darted to the edge of the street with a brown paper sack tied to his collar.
It didn’t matter if the package had hamburger or steaks inside. Moe’s job was to bring it home, untouched and unnibbled.
Crossing the road, drivers in their black model A’s and early fifties hump-top sedans pulled over as far as they could so as not to hit the dog with the precious package. Mr. and Mrs. Crammer from church drove by in their faded 1934 Studebaker. She had her old fur coat wrapped around her and a headscarf tied tightly around her head. The warm sun flooded the day enough for them to have their top down…it was a true Indian summer day. Mrs. Crammer twisted and turned to watch the dog carry his package across the street.
In a few minutes Moe returned with the sack still tied to his collar. When he reached the house, Gertie removed the package, patted him vigorously on his back, while Moe wiggled and danced. If a dog could smile, Moe grinned.
While Moe did the grocery shopping, Billy went around to the back of the house, near the back gate. There was the small lean-to his grandfather had built against the alley fence. That was Grampa’s toolshed. But, Billy’s favorite was Grampa’s new workshop. At the handmade door to the magical kingdom of tools, the boy pulled a big skeleton key from his pocked. Lifting the heavy chain to the padlock, he inserted the key and unlocked the door.
“It sure is swell in here,” Billy said out loud to the handcrafted toolbox and well organized gadgets that were everywhere. He scanned all the wonderful old tools his grandpa kept in there. The hammers and cold chisels hung neatly along the walls on special pegs Grampa had made. If someone threw away a broken screwdriver, Grampa would bring it home, lovingly make a new handle and find a perfect spot for it on the wall.
“Granddaddy, can I make something on your workbench?” Billy had asked the week before.
“Well now, Billy,” Grampa had drawn out as he stroked his chin, “you daresn’t loss any tools. You must put everything back just as you found them.” It was easy to see that Albert Moyer’s Pennsylvania Dutch way of talking had followed him all the way to Indiana sixty-five years ago.
“I will Granddaddy. I’ll put every hammer on the proper hook and every loose tack back in its proper box,” Billy promised as the vision of the majestic biplane he planned to build flew through his mind.
“What ya gonna make?” Grampa asked that day.
Billy took a deep breath and spit out, “A double winging airplane.” His machine gun speed answer added, “With a propeller up front and a rudder in the back.”
“Well, then, you’ll need some of that orange crate wood you helped me break down and store in the barrel over there,” Grampa offered. “You can use a piece of a coat hanger for the struts. I better cut those for ya.”
Billy smiled to himself as he looked around. “It’s happy in here,” he said as he fetched the small two step wooden ladder from the corner. He took one last fond look at all the great stuff Grampa had out there, ran his fingers over the smooth, well-warn workbench, and walked back out into the yard. He propped the ladder on the outside wall while he locked up his grandfather’s shop.
The air smelled like snow might be coming in on a new cold front. Billy turned his shirt collar up, fetched the step ladder and headed back to the house.
Once on the porch steps the aroma of frying hamburger wafted out through the door Gramma had left ajar. The sound of Moe stirring from his spot beside the large living room chair filtered to his ears. Out front, he heard the front door open and the interurban pass. That meant Grampa was home and Moe would greet him with a wiggled and a lick to his hand like always.
Home. While other guys had a mom and dad, Billy didn’t. Grampa Moyer and Uncle Walter were the closest people Billy had to a dad, since his own father rarely came around. Yes, his family was far different from the families the other kids at school had, and certainly not the same as his many cousins’ families. But, everyone who lived in that house on the corner loved him and that was good enough. He heard Moe come to the door and scratch. That was the cue it was time for him to go in. With the ladder in one hand, he opened the side-porch door. Moe jumped up; placed two paws right in the middle of Billy’s chest and licked his cheek. Inside, the house was full of laughter as everyone bustled around preparing for another family dinner. It smelled and sounded sweetly familiar, and…Billy knew. He was home.