s t o r y j o h n m i c h a e l c u m m i n g s
On my way to see Mom at work, I stopped in the liquor store and found Grandma doing something I never expected. She was in the storeroom, scraping the paint off the little window that had been painted black years ago, using one of those little scrapers made for narrow places. She said the room could use a little daylight, even though we were talking about the storeroom, which was always dark.
The black paint was coming off so easily it seemed it had never been made to stick to glass in the first place. I looked out. With half the window scraped clean, the other side of town was visible now. You could see everyone at the fire hall, along with cars pulling in to the post office.
I offered to finish scraping the window, and Grandma said all right and stood back and watched for a while. Then she went up front, and I continued working, careful not to scratch the glass, although that was nearly impossible.
All of a sudden a car pulled up outside the window, and someone was walking right toward me.
Lonny Dunn was the toughest, meanest boy up on the mountain, with a reputation for breaking into houses. He never came off the mountain and into Harpers Ferry like this, where all the tourists would look down on him for being a hillbilly. He was a few grades ahead of my oldest brother Jerry, but because of his size and rough way, he seemed much older. Jerry talked a lot about him, not just because Dunn was always being expelled from school for fighting, but because he had a glass eye. Most people wanted to look at him, but were afraid, because his glass eye always looked back at you as if it could see. He never wore a shirt, had tattoos all over his body, and stringy blonde hair.
He lunged at the window to try to scare me. Then he leaned down and rapped on the glass so hard I thought he would break it.
I stood there grinning. I often wondered why I wasn’t as scared of him as I should have been, despite the trouble he was. It was a feeling inside that he liked me, and a person who likes you, even one as rough as Lonny Dunn, wouldn’t ever hurt you.
“Ssh! My grandma,” I said, when I got the window up. I pointed to the front of the store.
“Mrs. Jennings’s your grandma?” he said.
He knew her, he said. I didn’t believe him. He said he stopped by here all the time. I still didn’t believe him. She had the best price around on Jack Daniels, he said. Now I was starting to believe him. Plus, she was a real nice woman, he said. I believed him.
Hell, he said, trying to climb through the small window, that practically made us family.
The window was way too small for him, so he had to go around the front way. I ran to the storeroom door. He came into the store and said hello to Grandma by name, and she said his name back. She was even smiling at him.
I wandered out, trying to act casual, and Lonny walked up and slapped me on the shoulder. Grandma was all eyes.
“You know my grandson, Lonny?”
“Sure I know him. Me and him rob banks together.”
Grandma was showing a thin smile to this. The best I could read it, it said everybody was amusing to her, even Lonny Dunn. The fact was, all different types, including tourists from the city, came through her store. No one surprised her.
Mom would have described her a little differently. Grandma was a good Christian, she would say. She never judged anybody.
Lonny was being careful not to cuss. He asked me why I hadn’t been on the mountain in a while. Ordinarily, he would have let out a few hundred foul words asking that. Grandma answered for me, saying I had been busy at home here in town.
Wiping his sweaty face, Lonny said he would be looking for more
work, if she knew of any.
Grandma looked at me.
“Your mother needs help with the house, doesn’t she?”
I nodded. I couldn’t believe what she was suggesting – one of the break-ins Lonny was suspected of doing was to my father’s cabin on the mountain.
“Maybe,” said Grandma, “since you all know one another…”
“Whoa,” said Lonny, putting up his hands, “his old man don’t like me none.”
Grandma took a moment to answer. She said there was no need to worry about that anymore.
Dad was gone. After years of fighting about his guns and the condition of the house, my parents had split up this summer. Dad took all his precious guns and was living in the cabin on his mountain property. He said he hated town anyway, with all the tourists. But the real reason was, he was ashamed of our house, of all the repairs it needed – repairs he could have done if he had just put his mind to it, Mom said.
Also, he loved the mountain. He delivered mail up there, so everyone knew him. Jerry, who was pretty smart, said the big difference between Mom and Dad was that she was English and Dad was Irish. The English were like whites in our county, the Irish like blacks. Mountain people were like blacks, too, which made Dad like them.
That night, Mom was unsure of the whole thing. Lonny Dunn! Lonny Dunn helping out around our house? After what he did, or was suspected of doing, to Dad’s precious cabin? She and Dad were sure it was Dunn who had busted in and stolen Dad’s sophisticated brass scales for weighing gunpowder, along with a whole assortment of fine tools. They always thought that Jerry had been involved in some way, too, but could never prove anything.
Mom had no idea that Grandma knew Lonny Dunn. Imagine, my mother, she said, knowing him. Sometimes her mother was too trusting, she said. He must have been all smiles with her. She would have to think about this, she said.
“Maybe he does good work,” she went on to say. “But if your father ever finds out.”
He wouldn’t, I said. He wasn’t around anymore. And so what if he did? It was our house now.
She looked at me. She didn’t quite agree with my attitude. But the fact remained, we did need help, and I couldn’t do the work by myself, and she wasn’t involving my brothers, because they would only tell their father.
The bottom line was, she knew of no one else. Plus, Grandma did say that Lonny didn’t charge much, and that alone might be enough of a reason. But she would sure have to watch him every step of the way, and under no circumstances was he to be allowed in the house.
It had been arranged that Lonny should come by after eleven the next day, after my brothers had gone to work. Some time after eleven but before half past, we could hear a car backfiring on the hill. Mom peeked out through the blind. “My lands, look at that, in front of our house,” she said.
Lonny was making a parking spot for his filthy Pinto, and that caused Mr. Barnes and a few other shopkeepers to look on as he pulled halfway up onto the sidewalk. Mom said he would get a ticket.
I ran outside, and the first thing Lonny did was throw an empty soda cup up at me. I kicked it off the front porch and ran down the steps and stood there grinning. It was the strangest feeling, standing out in the front of the house with him, in front of practically the whole snooty town. It was the first time I had really stood in front of the house without trying to hide myself, without looking down. And who was I standing with? Not with Tim Richmond or Deedee Jessup or Ernesto the artist or anybody else classy-looking, but with Lonny H. Dunn, as my father called him, from the mountain.
I looked across the street at Mr. Barnes and gave him a mean look. Having Lonny Dunn around was like having your own monster to protect you from all the people who pretended not to be monsters but really were.
Mom spoke to Lonny through the door, looking as if I had brought home a wet dog from the river.
“My son knows what you all are supposed to do,” she said, backing inside.
The first job was to cover the ugly white sewer pipes out front. That required hauling dirt from the backyard. To do this, I had to take him through the workshop. It was the strangest feeling, going through the workshop with him, knowing his eyes were seeing what no one outside our family ever had – insulation falling down, junk everywhere, dog hair everywhere, as if there had been ten years of chicken fights back here.
Funny, of all the people in the world I would want to see this mess, Lonny Dunn was the only one. The way I saw it, he was from the worst place on earth, Hard Hollow, and Dad’s workshop was the second worst place on earth, so he was the only one who wouldn’t look down on us. I felt that made us close, me being from the next to the worst place, he from the worst. Close in a way no one else would ever understand. Closer even than brothers.
He could carry two 5-gallon buckets of dirt at one time, and that impressed Mom looking out through the kitchen window. When she found an excuse to come out, he was on his best behavior and didn’t say much except “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.” But when she wasn’t around, he went into his sneaky mode, glancing at the kitchen window to make sure she wasn’t looking before he started looking behind boards and under things for something to take, usually some of Dad’s worst old tools that he had left behind, so I didn’t care.
At lunch, when I went inside to eat, Mom wondered whether she should offer him something, and that afternoon she did bring out two lemonades and say, “Lonny, would you like some watermelon?”
He was as polite as he could be.
The second job was to shore up the rock wall out front. Mom thought that was something I should leave to Lonny. So I went inside with her. She went on keeping an eye on him, peering through the Venetian blinds the way Dad used to. Then, when a tourist stopped in front of our house and asked him directions, Mom said, “Oh, Lord, he won’t know.”
I went to the window. Lonny pointed this way, then that way, and Mom groaned and snickered at the same time, as if she couldn’t make up her mind whether it was sad or funny. Imagine, she said, a boy from the mountain giving directions to tourists in Harpers Ferry.
To me, Lonny didn’t see himself as a boy from the mountain or that there was anything wrong with what he was doing. He was just there, working, and afraid of no one.
“Oh, who’s he talking to now?” Mom said with that giggle of hers.
I went to the window for the umpteen time. There was Lonny down by the rock wall, in front of our house, talking to a tourist girl. That made me say something. Lonny in his dirty tank top, tattoos showing, glass eye half popping out, talking to a pretty tourist girl?
“Well she sure seems to like him,” Mom said.
The girl stood there, looking the way a girl does when she does like a boy.
“That boy,” Mom said. “I can see why my mother likes him.”
I had to shake my head, too. Mom wouldn’t say it, but we could learn a lot from Lonny Dunn.
As soon as Mom left for work, I waved Lonny up. I led him into the workshop again, then up the back steps.
“Man, your old man sure was a hoarder,” he said, looking around at the bamboo poles, the rolls of roofing paper, and the old bricks Dad had us stack up because they might be worth something someday.
He touched the top of the freezer kept against the back of the house and asked if it worked. He looked up over the bank, at the two logs lying side-by-side and half-buried in the dirt, with rungs across them. He asked what it was, and I told him that was how we got up into the backyard. He said it looked like something in boot camp. He glanced at the high wall of bamboo growing around the house, which Dad had planted to keep eyes from looking in. I waited for him to ask what kind of plant it was, but he just squinted at it as if it was magical to him, like a kaleidoscope.
As I led him up the back steps, he looked down at the creosote planks as if thinking they might break through. He saw the old gutters overhead, the dead wasps’ nests, the water pipe left above ground and covered with heat tape, the screen door falling off the back door. I waited for him to say we lived like mountain people.
I took him inside the house through my bedroom door on the third-floor landing. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he looked around at the unpainted, hand-troweled walls. He looked down at the unpolished floorboards and overhead at the cracked ceiling. I thought I saw him nod, as if he was thinking about what needed to be done.
I listened to my voice saying which rooms were my brothers’. It was as if I was trying to sound like a tour guide, but we were really in a kind of cave, exploring. He looked in Robbie’s room and asked why there was writing all over the walls. He asked, too, if they were any lights on this floor. He kept his head ducked. He had never seen ceilings so low, he said.
We went down to the second floor. The walls down here were painted, but there were empty spaces around the room from where Dad had taken things. Left in the middle of the room was a spinning wheel. Against the wall was a push-pedal sewing machine.
“The bathroom’s real bad,” I said, leading the way.
He looked at the rotted plasterboard around the bathtub. He even leaned forward and looked down through the hole clean through the floor behind the tub. Then he jumped up and down a little, testing the boards. The floor was still solid, he said. He turned and saw the rotted floorboards around the commode. I expected him to say it was gross. I expected him to say our house was falling down.
We went downstairs. It was full of paintings, knickknacks, and Mom’s furniture projects. We had pretty much finished repainting the walls down here. At least there were no ghosts of Dad’s guns to see or think about.
He went into the kitchen on his own. That was bad, too, I said, waiting outside the door.
He came back out and looked around. “Man, this place just needs some work,” he said. He actually said we had a nice house. It just needed some work.
We went down to his car and got some tools out of the back. In the bathroom, I crouched down beside him as he measured the area of plasterboard that needed replacing. I noticed the veins in his arms. When he stood up, I stood up, too, and saw the two of us in the mirror together. The room was all around us. I had to smile. He was the first person outside our family to ever set foot in here. It was like having someone know the worst part of you and you feeling better for it.
By the time Mom came home, Lonny and I had nailed the new plasterboard in, then gone back outside and covered the sewer pipes and patted down the ground with shovels. She was glad those unsightly white pipes were finally underground, she said as she came in. She just hoped the stink would stay there, too.
I was nervous as she went upstairs. A few minutes later, she called out my name in that tone and stood at the top of the stairs, her face all twisted up like Dad’s.
“You let him in our house, Josh?”
I thought she was foolish for acting this way. The tub was about to fall through the ceiling.
“Somebody’s got to!” I said, almost yelling.
She gave me her “that’s ridiculous” look, but said nothing else.
That night, when my brothers were home, Jerry spotted the plasterboard patch in the bathroom. He flew downstairs like Dad, wanting to know what was going on, who had been in the house and done the work.
“Jerry, never you mind,” Mom said, standing up from the table.
“Who is it?” he said, being as demanding as he could be.
Mom picked up and slammed down the fruit bowl on the table. The house was half hers, she reminded him. She didn’t have to answer to anybody about that. Was that clear?
The next morning, she had a different attitude toward me. I could tell she felt sorry for how she had acted. I knew she was scared. So was I. At the kitchen table, she told Jerry and Robbie not to mention the work to their father. It was for the better right now. J erry sat there, looking as belligerent as he could be.
When Lonny arrived later that morning, Mom invited him inside. They started walking through the house. On the way up the steps, she apologized for the lack of lighting. He said he could fix that, too. Upstairs, she asked if he knew how to get the armchair out of the house without lowering it over the second story porch. He said he could hammer it apart and take it out in bags. She looked at him as she couldn’t believe how everything to him had a simple answer. He also said it would be no problem moving the foldaway bed upstairs.
In the bathroom, he ran his hands over the plasterboard around the back of the tub and said the spackling needed a little more sanding. Mom volunteered to do that. She said she could also take down the old wallpaper herself and prepare that surface for painting, too, as long as he thought that was okay.
Lonny looked at my mother as if he didn’t know what to say, and she realized it was a question he didn’t have to answer. So she said instead, trying to make conversation, “So you know my mother?”
“Yes ma’am. She’s real nice.”
Yes, she was, said Mom back. She looked at me. I looked at Lonny. It was as simple as that.
The next step, Lonny said, was to work on the floor around the tub from below, from the kitchen.
That night, Jerry looked around right away, noticed the patch on the kitchen ceiling, then started sniffing around everywhere else. I couldn’t believe how much like Dad he was becoming. He went outside and stood under the porch light, looking at all the dirt that had been put in the flowerbed and around the maple tree. He snooped around out the workshop, too, turning on lights and following the muddy tracks from the backyard where Lonny and I had hauled the dirt.
Some time later he came in the kitchen door. Mom was reading a magazine at the table. I was sitting beside her, drawing something.
“Mom, he’s been smoking out back, whoever he is,” he said. He held up a cigarette butt for her to see.
“Jerry, are you still harping on that?”
“I can do the work, Mom,” he said, his voice full of whining.
He flounced out of the room and stomped up the stairs. But the sound of his big boots stopped, so I knew he was just standing up there, waiting for Mom to call him back down. But she had given up doing that years ago.
After some time, he shuffled back down on his own and started acting sorry for how he had behaved. He had his head down and was moping around the kitchen door. He finally came in and stood against the pie safe.
“I want to help, Mom,” he said.
I hated to see him begging in front of me.
Mom started turning the pages of her Family Circle magazine, turning them automatically, not really reading anything, barely glancing. Then she put down the magazine and looked squarely at him. “I want to know, Jerry,” she said, getting that hard look, “did you tell ‘somebody’ what was in your father’s cabin?”
She blamed Jerry for so much in her life. Treated him like a little version of Dad. I felt sorry for him. He wasn’t always a bad brother. He was just the oldest, and the oldest always got the worst.
“I did it,” I blurted out.
Mom turned to me. “You told him? You told Lonny Dunn?” The look on her face was out of this world. The look on Jerry’s was about as bad.
She started flipping pages of the magazine. You could hear them practically ripping. At first, she wouldn’t look at me. Then she made me tell her the whole story, from the start.
I told her about sneaking off the property. I told her about running into Dunn. I lied a little more and said we didn’t plan on stealing anything from Dad’s cabin. The whole time, she just sat there. So did Jerry.
“The disappointment you boys put me through,” she finally said.
I looked at Jerry. All the belligerence was out of him. There was a lot of something out of me, too.
It was then Mom said, “Jerry you might as well know.” She told him Lonny Dunn was working on the house, thanks to Grandma. She told him how he had come recommended.
Jerry sat there, looking socked in the stomach. Lonny Dunn working on our house? That was all he could say over and over.
Mom went back to flipping pages. “I swear. The way things turn out.”
The whole time, you could hear the tick-tock of the last old clock in the living room.
“Now, Jerry, if you want to help out around here, I guess you can paint your own room.” She looked at me. “You all can.”
Jerry wanted to take a light up on the third floor tonight and look at the walls and ceilings, and Mom, to our surprise, said it was a good idea. We could help her move some boxes around while we were up there.
Up the third floor stairs we filed, Jerry holding an old metal desk lamp on the end of an extension cord unraveling behind him. There was already an extension cord running up the stairs, but it was old and stapled down, and rather than mess with the arrangement of old plugs already up there, Mom thought it was better to take up a separate light.
As we went up, light from the desk lamp Jerry carried cast up around the plastered-up walls as if inside a cave. Dad had started work up here before we were born, but never finished. The walls were a swirl of gray and white patches of plaster.
I found a flashlight on the top step and started shining it around. I wanted to paint my room blue, I said. So did Jerry. Mom said a neutral shade would be better for one of the rooms. Eggshell-white or beige. Our brother Robbie would want to pick a color, too, she reminded us, so we all should decide together, to be fair.
The three of us stood there, in the light of the lamp.
“Is he coming tomorrow?” Jerry asked.
“Yes, Jerry, he is,” Mom said right back.
Then Jerry laughed, and it was not his usual cruel laugh, either. It was the laugh of something funny.
This story also appears in CrossConnect