Grandma


11 year old Marvin took the long way home from school every Thursday. Instead of going straight down 6th street past Pinti Field to River Road over to Millbrook and home he went up 6th to East Dominick to Nock Street to Culverton to Mayberry then to Millbrook. The walk from Columbus Elementary School to the Riverdale neighborhood was four times as long by the Dominick route but well worth it.

The part of the walk going down Dominick Street was especially rewarding. It went past little neighborhood bars and grocery stores, shoe repair shops and beauty parlors. The stuff in the trash cans sitting out at the curb on Thursdays was lots nicer than the stuff in trash cans going up Sixth. The trash on Sixth was bad enough but the stuff in trash cans along River Road was pitiful. People who lived on River Road  were poor—they couldn’t afford nice trash.

The trash out in front of Slug’s Tavern and Bernie’s B&G was always good. Some days Marvin would carry home a dozen Pepsi or Coke bottles which could be turned in for the 2 cents deposit at Bill’s store—nearly a quarter—a lot of money. And that made Marvin very happy.

When he was ten Marvin found some curtains some lady on Culverton threw out. There they were, all clean & bright green—just laying folded neatly on top of some cereal boxes and corn husks. He gathered them up and brought them home to mom. She first looked surprised but spread them out, studied them carefully then decided they were better than the ones she had hanging in the living room. Marvin took the curtains his mom took down back to the trash can on Culverton and placed them, neatly folded, exactly where the green ones had been. That seemed like the right thing to do. Every time he came home after that and saw the beautiful new green curtains hanging there he felt proud. Marvin’s mother liked the curtains and that made Marvin very happy.

During summer vacation Marvin would walk the route backwards over to Culverton on Thursdays to see what treasures were there. One afternoon there was a pile of scrap lumber with nails sticking out every which way, stacked by a trash can near the Nock and Culverton intersection. He ran back home and got his Radio-Flyer wagon then, making 11 trips back and forth, carried the pile to his back yard. Behind his house he had started a pile of boards—most of which he had found at an industrial dump on the other side of the big patch of woods at the end of Millbrook Road. Most of the kids in Riverdale went to the dump to look for good stuff that had been thrown out—boards, big boxes to play in, sticks you could make kites out of.

Using one of his dad’s claw hammers he carefully pulled all the nails out of any boards he found. With this latest haul he now had enough material for a project he’d had in mind for some time. For the next several days Marvin roamed around his neighborhood looking at other kid’s forts to get ideas. Then over a period of almost two weeks he built the nicest fort in Riverdale—constructing it at the edge of his parent’s property under two large Beech trees. He even found shingles to put on top so he could go out there when it was raining. Several times right after the fort was finished he would go sit in his fort and listen to the rain on the roof he had built—it was soothing—and it made Marvin very happy.

All the kids said it was really neat—even neater than Gary Depeyster’s fort which was even big enough for kids to stand up and walk around inside. But now everybody in Riverdale said Marvin’s fort was the best—much better than Gary’s. One day Gary came down and looked at it—said it was a piece of crap and jerked the door off the hinges on his way out. The next morning when Marvin got up his fort had been smashed to pieces. That made Marvin very unhappy.

Marvin picked up the lumber that was worth salvaging and stacked it neatly behind the house. The rest he put out by the curb next to his own family’s trash cans.

A few weeks later Marvin’s grandmother came to visit. She lived in Oklahoma—a three day drive whenever the family went down there to visit her and other relatives.

He just came home from school one day and there she was sitting in that rocker she always sat in, in the living room—there by the beautiful green curtains. She had a big basket of green beans in her lap breaking the ends off—getting them ready for supper. She’d picked them from the little garden out back of the house.

She glanced at Marvin but didn’t say anything. The only time she said anything to him (other than telling him to do something like mow the yard) was to tell him how when he died he would go to hell if he had bad thoughts about the girls in his class or talked to that trashy Chrissy girl that lived across the street. Some times she’d tell him he and his brother and sister ate too much and that was the reason Marvin’s mom and dad weren’t any better off than they were—he and his brother and sister ate too much. When Marvin told her how he’d found the beautiful green curtains for his mom she said she didn’t like them—the old ones were much better.

Once in a while she’d take him fishing on the Barge Canal. Grandma would bait his hook with worms she’d picked up in the yard after a rain and she’d tell him to “Pull,” when the red plastic bobber went under the muddy brown water. They caught mostly sunfish and perch.

On the way home from the canal they would stop by the river a few blocks from the house and Grandma would gather up these plants she called “Polk Salad.” At home she’d boil the Polk salad, drain off the water and boil it again and again. Then she’d cut open the fish, take out their guts and fry them in lard. She’d sit there at the chipped, white enamel kitchen table eating the Polk Salad and the fish—pulling the little bones out of her mouth with every bite as she pulled the bits of cooked white flesh from the fish body, peeling away the silvery skin while the dead fish eye stared up at the ceiling.

Marvin’s grandma grew up very poor. She was proud of being poor and never having enough to eat and her family having to make everything they owned. She’d tell Marvin the same stories over and over again—like how she would help her dad and brothers make furniture for their home out of trash boards that were thrown out and help her mom churn butter—if they were lucky enough to have any milk.

She liked to tell how she and her 9 brothers and sisters only had shoes to wear in cold weather and each of them had to make one pencil do for the entire school year—until she got old enough to where she could pick cotton and milk cows—then she had to quit school and go to work.

One day Marvin would came home from school carrying pop bottles he’d found in trash cans and grandma was gone—the rocker next to the windows empty. She came by Greyhound bus to visit and went home by Greyhound bus—when the Lord told her to. She came and went—once or twice a year but never told anybody what the Lord said—that was between her and God.

“Did Grandma go home?” Marvin asked his mother as she kneaded dough on the kitchen table.

“Yeah,” mom replied glancing at him as he put his pop bottles into a brown paper grocery bag. The bag would sit on the side porch until he had enough to fill his wagon and make a trip to Bill’s store.

“Look in the back yard,” she told him.

Marvin went out the side door and around behind the house. There just in front of the family’s vegetable garden was a row of 5 Adirondack  style wooden lawn chairs made out of boards from the pile of lumber that had previously been Marvin’s fort.

It was like Goldilocks and the three bears. There was a biggest chair for dad, a slightly smaller chair for mom and three smaller chairs—the biggest one for Marvin, a slightly smaller one from his younger brother and a smallest one for his sister.

Marvin liked the chairs his grandmother had made and when the weather was nice he would sit in his chair in the yard and read science fiction books he’d taken out of the library. One day Gary DePeyster was passing by the house on his way to the dump and noticed Marvin sitting in his chair reading. He stopped—walked over to where Marvin sat—pointed and laughed at him—calling him a sissy and stupid because he was reading something he didn’t have to.

Gary  laughed at his chair—calling it homemade crappy shit and pushing it over—knocking Marvin to the ground. That made Marvin unhappy.

Marvin didn’t say anything. He walked over to where the rest of the boards were still piled behind the house, came back with one and hit Gary in the side, on an arm then over the head. Gary  ran away crying and never came back again.

And that made Marvin very happy.

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