|Although this story is fiction, we suspect that there's something of the author in the young narrator. Like his character, Phillip Parotti — a past winner in our writing contest — grew up in Silver City, and has plenty of "shadows" of his own to share. We're delighted to welcome him — and his memories — back to our pages.|
"That's the way with shadows," Miss Hattie said. "Things come, and things go, and there isn't much that a body can do to stop them, I suppose, and when they're gone, nothing but their shadows are left to make us remember them."
By Phillip Parotti
I landed my first serious job about two weeks after General Eisenhower took up his post as President of the United States. At the time, I was 10 years old, and child labor laws were being handled with a great deal more sense than they are today. Work was thought to have intrinsic value because sports had not yet become the be-all and end-all of youthful endeavor. As a confirmed baseball player, I had been given more than my share of parental encouragement, but the idea that I might like to train myself for a career as a center fielder for a National League team — in our house, the American League, the Aristocratic League, was not even mentioned — would have sent my entire family into fits of laughter.
"Mature men work for a living," my father told me, "at serious jobs, so set your sights on becoming an engineer, a lawyer, a concert musician, or even an arc welder, but you most certainly will not be allowed to play games for a living, no matter how good you may turn out to be at them. We expect you to contribute something to this country that has been so very good to us and to do it through productive work. "
My father, the son of emigrants from a Mediterranean country, had nevertheless imbibed enough of the Puritan work ethic to make his point abundantly clear. So, along about the time that General Eisenhower stepped up to take the oath, when I asked for a slight increase in my allowance and was informed that money did not grow on trees, I knew that I had reached a crossroads in my life. On the following day, I walked the three blocks to Hall's Grocery, laid my cards on the table, and asked Mr. Hall for a job.
Mr. Hall suffered from asthma. At the beginning of the Second World War, he'd enlisted in the Navy, but as soon as he'd gone to sea, his health had taken a turn for the worse, so he'd been given a medical discharge and supported himself with the combined proceeds from his disability check and what he could make from his store. It was a small store, but Mr. Hall was a good butcher, and he made do. During the week, a college boy, working between classes, assisted in running the business. But, after checking with my father, Mr. Hall agreed to give me four hours of work every Saturday morning, and I started right off at 25 cents per hour, a wage that soon made me financially independent and the wealthiest boy in my fifth-grade class.
The work that I was asked to do was not demanding. I swept the store as soon as I arrived on Saturdays, first throwing down a sawdust compound that helped to pick up the dust and dirt. Then I filled the soda machine, opening the lid to put in bottles of grape and orange soda, root beer, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Seven-Up, about the only soft drinks known in our town at the time. After that, I had to open boxes of canned goods, write the prices on the lids with a grease pencil, and stack whatever shelves needed replenishing, and when those tasks were done, I bagged potatoes.
Potatoes in those days were delivered in 100-pound bags. I couldn't lift 100 pounds of anything at that age, but I nevertheless pulled the potato-filled gunny sacks around the counter to the scale and then filled some paper bags with five pounds of potatoes and others with 10 pounds of potatoes and marked them accordingly. When that unpleasant job was finished, I was detailed to help customers, make change at the cash register, or run errands. The errands that I ran usually involved making small deliveries within a two- or three-block radius of the store.
"Do you own a wagon?" Mr. Hall finally asked me about two weeks after I started to work for him.
"Yes, sir," I told him.
"Do you think that you could bring it with you next Saturday? If you can, it will save you carrying several sacks of groceries by hand. "
On the following Saturday morning, I pulled my wagon over to the store, and once I'd finished my normal chores and filled the soda machine, Mr. Hall handed me a list, and I began collecting the items and storing them in some of the empty cardboard boxes that we had placed in my wagon. Then, when we were all done, Mr. Hall totaled the costs and came up with a bill of $15. 35 for the load, what might have amounted to about a week's worth of groceries for one or two people in those days.
"Now," Mr. Hall said, "you are to take these up to Miss Hattie. Do you know Miss Hattie? Do you know where she lives?"
"No, sir," I said.
"Do you know Roscoe Bender?" Mr. Hall asked. "He's about your age, isn't he?"
I knew Roscoe Bender. Roscoe Bender was in the seventh grade, and he was a bully.
"Yes, sir," I said tentatively.
"Then you also know where he lives, don't you?" Mr. Hall said.
"Yes, sir," I said. Every boy in my class knew where Roscoe Bender lived, and none of us ever went anywhere near his place.
"Right," said Mr. Hall. "Well, you pull your wagon straight up the Benders' drive-way until you come to the back gates; there are two of them, and Miss Hattie lives behind the green gate. She has a little one-bedroom brick house back there that sits on the rear of the Benders' lot. She's related to the Bender family somehow, but how, I don't know. Rather than living with them, she lives out there by herself, and that's where you are to take these groceries."
I wanted to ask Mr. Hall what I was supposed to do if Roscoe Bender tried to make trouble for me, but I didn't. Instead, I pulled Miss Hattie's groceries up the street in my wagon, stopped just short of the Benders' driveway, and then, when it looked to me like the coast was clear, made a beeline for the green gate at the back of the drive. And I'd just about made it when Roscoe Bender suddenly emerged from behind the gate to his house and blocked my path.
"Say, what-do-you-think-you're-doing-up here?" he said, surprised to see me, his voice filling with sudden menace.
"Delivery for Miss Hattie," I croaked, hoping that I was cloaking myself with enough of Mr. Hall's authority to clear my passage.
The mention of Miss Hattie's name seemed tantamount to the mention of "Open Simsim" in the tale of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves." Once Miss Hattie's name had dropped from my lips, Roscoe changed color slightly and backed off without even punching me in the shoulder as I hurried by. I'd made a narrow escape, I knew, but one that I made note of in hopes that I might develop variations of the "Miss Hattie" ploy for use at school.
Pushing open the gate, I pulled my wagon inside. The sidewalk inside that gate was both old and cracked, and it didn't extend four full feet before it came to an abrupt stop against Miss Hattie's front step. Once I had the wagon inside the gate, I knocked on the door, and after I'd waited about five minutes, the door opened. I found myself looking up at a very tall, very thin, very wrinkled old woman wearing a sun bonnet like the sun bonnets women wore in the Randolph Scott and Wild Bill Elliot Westerns we used to see for 10 cents every Saturday afternoon at the El Sol Theater.
"What," Miss Hattie said, "you've never seen a woman wearing a sun bonnet before? Goodness me, boy, you'd better close that mouth of yours, or the flies are liable to light in there and set up housekeeping. "
"Groceries for Miss Hattie," I said, trying to cover my surprised discomfort with an announcement that sounded halfway official.
"I expect so," Miss Hattie said. "I'll hold the door open for you, and you can put all of that chuck on the table. "
I didn't know for sure what Miss Hattie might mean by the word "chuck," but I guessed that she used the word to indicate her groceries, and I think that turned out to be right.
"Mind my shadow box," she said, as I carried in the first sack. "Don't trip over it."
I didn't have any idea what she meant by the term "shadow box" either, but I did my best to avoid the black enamel footlocker that she had sitting right in the middle of her floor. As I carried each sack of groceries into her tiny kitchen, I noticed that she didn't make any attempt to move the box even though it was smack in my path.
"Now," she said, as I set the last sack on her table, "I owe you some money, and I want you to count my change out to me, out loud. I don't see as well as I used to, but I can hear just fine, and I can feel the difference between a quarter and a nickel."
I took the $20 bill that she handed me and put it in my left pocket; then I took the change Mr. Hall had given me from my right pocket and counted it into her blue-veined hand.
"That makes us square," she said, folding her change into the pocket of her apron. "Now, what's your name, boy?"