From The Little Bastard
Published by Anchor & Plume Press, October 2014
Now just because I’m telling you all this, you shouldn’t think we were cruel. It isn’t healthy not to be jealous in a neighborhood at that stage in your family life. And there was so much family life at just that stage in The Gardens.
The Gardens was a slum-cleared block about six streets from the riverfront, built sort of like an Italian villa, with all the courtyards and shrubbery on the inside and the building forming a cinderblock fortress all the way around. In the summer, the discipline was especially good. Moellie, the head custodian, would fill the wading pool up high if our kids kept the handball court clean. If they strewed the courtyards with a few papers and cardboard boxes, Moellie only filled the pool part way. If our kids took into their heads to tear through The Gardens playing war games, with those bombs they’d make out of paper bags filled with sand and water, throwing rocks every which way and making foxholes by the bushes, Moellie left the pool as dry as a sidewalk for a week. But in sorrow for our kids, Moellie would turn the hose on most of them every time he watered the grass that week. We lived in lively armistice with each other most of the time.
Almost all of us were in our early twenties, with a baby or two, except Esther McQuinn and her husband Joe. Joe worked at the same department store with several of the other Gardens’ husbands. At night, Joe would walk home from town, maybe with Art Gordon and Jerry Baugh, or with my husband, on his way home from the mill. When the boys came through the areaway into the handball court, they’d start taking off their shoes. They’d barely get their feet sunk into the reviving ripples of the pool before their kids would be upon them, descending like fierce airmen from the brick walls, the trees and the cement benches, rising from the water and shimmying down the iron balconies of our porches, to welcome their dads home.
About this time Leo Werner, head buyer of menswear at Barr’s, would appear in his shorts from the porch of his apartment across the way. He’d always proceed with slow, plump dignity to the edge of the pool and just then his four-year-old daughter Lucy Lee would pop up from the waves to trip him almost flat into the water. Leo would roll over his body in the center of the pool, and turn Lucy Lee over too, and she’d get her spanking. But that was just routine, and five minutes later Lucy Lee would fly into the house to get Leo his beer. It wouldn’t be The Gardens on an August evening if Leo were not lying out there in the middle of the wading pool with Lucy Lee riding his chest and holding his beer for him between swallows.
Then the six-o-clock churchbells would ring from all over the downtown. And while supper finished, most of us would come out to sit around the pool too, and somebody would remember to bring the beer. Finally we’d all go in to eat, with our kids following along beside us or running on ahead. All except Esther and Joe McQuinn who had no kids to follow them home. We usually left them out there alone sitting with their feet in the water and looking a little lonesome. Sometimes Joe would yell after us: “You just wait! We’re going to have a family too!”
But they didn’t and they didn’t.
Time was when the boys came through the areaway from Barr’s and through the other gate from the Stove factory, they’d holler over towards Joe – “Hey Joe, how are you and Esther doing on that baby?” and in those days Joe and Esther would call out cheerfully, “Still negotiating, give us time!” And for some time afterward the slogan of our courtyard was, “Hey Joe, are you still negotiating?”
They had been waiting for that baby nearly four years. We no longer kidded them about it. Esther and Joe were only twenty-five, but after all that waiting, they looked older than any of us.
Frances Margaret Schutze (1916–2002) was a graduate of the University of Michigan and taught elementary school for 15 years. The descendant of Kansas pioneers, Schutze wrote a gossip column for a LaBette county, Kansas newspaper under the pseudonym Betty LaBette. During her tenure at a Missouri radio station she wrote fill-in patter for DJs and radio plays including “Shoestring Pagoda.” Later in life she was the author/illustrator of nearly 50 picture books for children, hand-published in extremely limited editions. She had four children and four grandchildren.