Saturday, February 13, 2010

Two and Twenty Farthings

A cemetery is safe in the sunlight. But haints lift up after dusk.

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From my porch I could see Hendry’s Grocery. It was a short two-block walk. Its battered screen door was meant to invite the outside air in while keeping the flies at bay. But years of passage had morphed its frame into a sort of an S-shaped warp, and even when latched, a house cat could easily pass through its flare. In many places the screen had been bulged into pockets by elbows and knees that pushed it open when arms were laden with grocery sacks. In some spots the screen was torn. Early on, Mr Hendry had patched it using scrap pieces of screen woven in like a repaired fishing net. But eventually he tired of what seemed to be a futile maintenance effort and just let the door fight its own battles. I suppose he figured that at least the door had retained its intended promotional value. Across its middle was an enameled metal bar proclaiming “Join the Swing to Pepsi!” Well, after all, the door did still swing.

I passed by Hendry’s on my frequent trips to the Greenwood Cemetery. I did not stop at the store on the way up East Avenue, but saved my visit for the return trips home—a sort of reward should I be successful in my forage.

The cemetery was home to three things I could reliably expect. First were the legions of grass burs we called “Goat Heads”—aggressive spheres of spines that clung to anything passing within their reach. In the same way a magnet draws thumbtacks, Goat Heads would leap onto my tennis shoes, my socks, and the legs of my jeans. Picking them off was tortuous, as the little thorns were arrayed like starbursts, with no safe place to grasp. They were murderous to bicycles—so much that I never ventured there with my balloon tires. The damage that stickers caused was never a blowout, but the more nagging slow death—enough nuisance to cause constant airing up of sagging rubber, but not enough to warrant hot-patches.

A Greenwood constant was its abundance of Magnolia pods. Each pod contained a number of bright red seeds about the size of a purple-hull pea. I would gather them in the fall to earn a few quarters from the neighborhood ladies who favored them for stringing into Christmas tree garlands. I had to act quick, rushing from tree to tree to beat the squirrels who considered the seeds their Thanksgiving bounty. For the ones that had not yet fallen, I dislodged them with a long cane pole as high as it would reach. In several days at Greenwood, I could harvest two or three nice coffee cans of beads. The ladies called them “Rubies from Heaven.” and held them in some sort of reverence.

My main quest, however, were the mammoth grasshoppers that seemed to favor the grounds and graves. They were black and yellow, with red racing stripes, and were as large as my prized Vicks pocket inhaler. A cricket box stuffed with these giants could bring as much as thirty cents—the ideal trotline bait I was told. I had sort of an auction going between Mr Liston and Mr Van Norden. One would always bid a few cents more than the other for the prized insects.

For grasshopper weaponry, I used a fly swatter. I would slap the insect enough to disorient it but not injure it. Then I would put it into my cricket box head first. Grasshoppers had a silent defense of their own. Once in my grasp, they would emit a coffee-colored squirt of what the old timers called “tobacco juice,” although I knew that it was actually a fluid far less salutary. The substance stained the fingers and had an unpleasant odor, but that was about it. The grasshoppers could bite too; although it was a rather lame effort. It felt like the pinch of tweezers when removing a splinter. No real damage caused.

Each time before leaving the cemetery bound for Hendry’s, I walked the short distance to a special spot. We Moore’s had a family plot in Greenwood. In it were relatives I had never known or couldn’t remember. Lee, my grandmother’s brother, Jeffrey, the still-birth son of my Uncle Archie, and Solen, my grandfather who had died at an early age of pneumonia. The grave markers were just simple metal signs supplied by the funeral home, about the size of a postcard. My uncle Jack pledged to provide some more stately markers “When we fill up the remaining spaces.”

Not far from our simple family grave site stood a granite and marble structure worthy of the architecture that marked the great edifices of our Nation’s Capital buildings. It was as large as our garage, with thick black glass windows adorned with gold metal vines and flowers. Its massive metal doors had the same green patina of the Statue of Liberty, with a keyhole large enough for a mouse to enter. Above its alcove was carved the name MOORE. It was just a “coincidence of surname,” I was told, for they were not family members.

In front of the structure were two iron benches, painted white and appearing to have been refreshed often. Between them was a fancy brass water faucet in the shape of a dolphin, which I used many times to quench my thirst and wash the grasshopper tobacco from my hands. Like the doors, it had also lost its brass luster and had acquired that pleasant green hue. Sitting on the bench in front of the word MOORE somehow made me sense a kingly heritage. We may not have been close family, but the Statue of Liberty tells us that all the nation’s Moores once huddled together on the same deck of the ship that brought us here.

I reached into my pocket and took an extra drag from my Vicks inhaler just to celebrate the moment.

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