When I started junior high it was much, much too far to walk to school. “How’m I supposed to get to school?” I asked my dad.
“Ride your bike,” he said.
I had an old gray Murray 10-speed with lazy brakes and stem shifters. It had been brand new two years before, in 1974, so by that time it was merely new, as we hadn’t discovered disposable bicycles yet. I saved up five dollars mowing the lawn and squirreling away my weekly fifty-cent allowance, then went down to the Eagle Supermarket on Bissonnet and bought a bike lock in the hardware section.
The problem with riding to Jane Long Junior High School was that I had to go the other way down the street from the way I had gone to get to Braeburn Elementary, which meant that every morning I’d have to ride by Mrs. Dargabble’s house. Because school was such a long way off I had to leave early, which was an even bigger problem because it was usually in the early morning that Mrs. Dargabble would be up in the big oak tree, although sometimes she was up there late at night.
In the mornings, unlike the night, she didn’t cry or sing or howl. Instead, she would shinny up the bole of that ancient post oak and trot out onto the biggest limb, a limb so big and fat and thick and long that it stretched halfway across the street. It was pretty scary having to start your morning pedaling underneath that crazy old scowling owl looking down at you with her long, stringy hair and her shabby nightgown over which she’d thrown a sweater or a long-sleeved shirt, socks up to her knees and a baseball cap or a wool hat or a big floppy thing with a straw brim jammed down on her head.
Mrs. Dargabble was fifty or so and that was so old to a 12-year-old boy that she might as well have been dead. You would have thought her children, who were grown, would do something about her tree-climbing, actually it was more like tree-perching, or that her husband, Mr. Dargabble, would forbid her from sitting out on that limb, but no one ever did anything.
All I can tell you is that it scared the hell out me.
She lived two houses down and the first day I had to ride to school I looked down the street and sure enough, there she was, those long stockinged legs draped over the bough. She saw me, too, as I pushed that big Murray down the drive — I got on it like a man did in those days, left foot on the left pedal, pushing off with the right foot and then throwing the right leg over the saddle.
Our driveway was long and had a steep drop down to the street so that you always had a good head of steam going when you hit the street, leaned hard right, and sprinted away, using every ounce of momentum to carry you pell-mell under that branch with crazy old Mrs. Dargabble dangling up there in the tree glaring furiously at the world.
Of course it was the South and I was a little kid, and crazy or not she was an adult so as I pumped those pedals, my knapsack jumping all over my back like it was plugged into an electrical socket I’d still have to look up and say, “Good morning, Mrs. Dargabble!” as I slammed the pedals like hell to get past. She never said a word, just glowered at me.
This went on for the first week of school. Then on the Monday of the second week of school as I roared past, shouting my greeting, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a hat, or a cap, or even the old dishrag she sometimes tied around her head.
On Tuesday I sprinted by. She wasn’t wearing a shirt or a sweater, just the old threadbare nightgown and of course no bra, and with the hot and sticky Houston weather you could see her droopy breasts pointed down so straight they looked like the would bore into the center of the earth.
On Wednesday she had dispensed with the stockings and I had to grit my teeth as I looked up, because sure enough her legs splayed on that branch showing her thick cotton granny panties all bunched up and her nightgown raised up to her knees.
I got up on Thursday and knew what was coming. “Hey, dad,” I said.
“What?” He put down the paper.
“Would you give me a ride to school?”
“I’m feeling kind of sick. It’s such a long way. I think I’m gonna throw up.”
Dad put down his paper. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “When I was your age I lived on a ranch. It was a two-mile walk from the house to the front gate. And you know what I had waiting for me when I got to the front gate?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. It was one of those old, much hated stories that every kid despises every time he hears it, but eventually cherishes when he’s old enough that he doesn’t get to hear it anymore.
“I had another three miles to get to the schoolhouse. And you know what I did when it rained?”
“I walked. And you know what I did when it snowed?”
“I walked. And you know what I did when it hailed, or when it was 105 degrees, or when it was flooding, or when the snow had turned to ice, or when the road was churned up into a mud pit two feet deep, or when I was sick, or when I didn’t feel like going to school, or when I’d forgotten my homework, or when I knew that Gus Tumpkins was laying for me past the creek?”
“I did the same damn thing. I walked.”
He picked up his newspaper and went back to it. “You don’t look sick anyhow,” he added for punctuation.
“Yes, sir.” I wondered if he’d ever had to walk underneath a crazy lady who didn’t have any shorts on.
My heart was pounding as I rolled the Murray out of the garage. I couldn’t bear to check down the street; I didn’t have to. I knew she was there. I shoved off with my right foot like I was trying to push off an aircraft carrier, and I got the biggest head of steam I ever had. The rubber whined as I careened into the quiet suburban street, the sun barely up, and I mashed the pedals with the power spawned by fear.
I looked up. She was perched on the branch, stark naked, legs spread open, the tuft of red hair thick and wiry looking and glorious, and she was smiling at me. It was the first time in the seven years I’d lived on the street that I’d ever seen her smile.
On Friday morning dad put down his paper. “You want a ride today?”
“No, sir,” I said.
He looked surprised. “Okay.”
I casually rolled the bike out and cruised slowly down the drive. I looked up, but she wasn’t there. And she never was again.
One day, some thirty-five years later, I returned to that street. Most of the old houses had been torn down and replaced by McMansions. The giant oaks that formed a massive arbor over the street remained, having grown more beautiful with time. Our old house was still there, and so was Mrs. Dargabble’s, the only two on the block that were left from my childhood.
Starting at my driveway, I drove the entire route from my house to my old junior high school. I was surprised at how near it was.
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