At the Door
Our stucco house, with its tile and tarpaper roof, stands right next to a little spook house, brown and old and run-down. Jammed inside the two or three acres next door is a scary jungle of trees and bushes, tools and engines, boxes, barbed wire heaps, lean-to’s and little shacks, boards and pipes and all kinds of weird stuff. Almost any time of day or night you can hear growls and yowls of I don’t know how many birds, goats, dogs, cats, peacocks, monkeys, and who knows what else. Julius’s place is a smelly junkpile. It reaches several stories all over and sounds off at any given hour. Cackles and whines, grumbles and snorts, caws and brays and screeches of animals, together with clangings and scrapings of engines and saws and what-not. You can’t help but picture big hammers or axes or grinders you’ve never seen before. All in all, we’re pretty scared of it.
My cousin Michael lives with us the whole summer, when my aunt and uncle’s house in town burns down and the cousins almost die but don’t. One day four of us crouch together in the ditch across the narrow road from Julius’s front door. Closed tight, the door stands behind tangling vines and limbs that hang down and reach over from one side and the other.
“Bet a nickel you can’t go up and knock on the door,” somebody says. Not me. Gulp! Who has the nerve? Gangly Michael, who isn’t from the prairie? But he is four or five years older than the rest of us and has a Scout badge (which he wears most of the time). Stocky little Danny, the youngest and quietest, only just finished first grade? Neighbor Jimmy, the same age as me, sneezing with hay fever, chewing sweet grass stalks? Or me, the girl?
The four of us take shallow breaths. We’re thinking it over. To the left of the paint-peeling door the monkey rustles perched in a cage on the seat of a torn-up kitchen chair. He pulls away at the stuffing that oozes out from the ripped vinyl. “Skwaaaak—skwaaaak—skwaaaak—E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eech!” he screeches through his teeth every now and again. He knows perfectly well that a plot is hatching there in the wet, reedy ditch.
The sun climbs high. Lunchtime’s coming. Somebody’s sister might shout out the face-saving call to eat. But it hasn’t happened yet. I weigh the options.
One possibility—a sneak knock. Circle around from the right, going down a ways in the ditch until you’re across from the tangle of fence at the side of the house. Then, up. Dash across the road. Scoot along the fence, careful not to get caught on the poking-through barbs and branches, vines, wild flowers, wires, nail-stickin’-out-boards, car parts, and rusty junk hanging around Julius’s house. Would it count if you a stick, say a broom handle or small apple tree limb, to tap on the door from the side… then hightail it? I hesitate to raise the question, which could be viewed as chicken. But since no one else does, tugging at my cowboy hat, I propose my idea.
“No, we wouldn’t want to do that,” Michael speaks for all of us, “It has to be a real knock, you know, like you’re going to go for a sandwich or to shake hands or something.”
I gulp inside. Can hardly picture it, really. Who knows what Ol’ Julius might do if he answers the door? What about the monkey? Even as the thoughts travel my mind, the monkey jangles the door of his cage. “I don’t believe I’m up for it,” I think to myself secretly.
We pause and lean toward skinny Michael, with his tan fishing hat and canvas-covered canteen. After all, he must be almost 12, and it seems pretty much his idea. He rubs his neck. Shrugs. Crawls up out of the ditch. Pulling down on his rumpled hat, he walks across the narrow road. Jimmy, Danny, and I look on as the canteen bobs across the lane toward the squalling monkey. As Michael gets to the house, his left hand rests on the canteen. His right hand lifts to the door. The monkey bounces and screeches. Our eyes stare wide as we look through the reedy grass that rims the ditch. Yowling peacocks join with the monkey. Dogs take to barking.
Michael’s hand reaches forward, ready to rap on the door. My heart flutters and thumps. Birds chirp in slow motion, far away. Little puffy clouds trickle across the sky. Then… Whoooosh. The mud-colored door flies open. Ohmygosh… It’s…. Julius!
Everything stops. Like being in the Fun House at the county fair when things break down and you’re stuck in the weird mirrors part. Will we ever leave this ditch? Will Michael disappear in the doorway? Will our parents wonder what happened to us?
Stooped, Julius holds a scruffy, wriggling puppy. They’re both kind of little in the doorway. Julius is smaller than I had pictured him. But every bit as messy. Raggedy pants hang from his suspenders. Bushy, tangled hair and beard and eyebrows sprout this way and that way beneath his crumpled hat. He doesn’t look like anybody I know.
Leaning forward, he pats the monkey’s cage. Speaks some strange words. Waves his free hand. Nods his head. He takes a step toward Michael. Jim and Dan and I watch from the ditch, peering through the wet grass. Our mouths fall open. Our breath comes fast all by itself. This is one of those silent movies, or a television cartoon when the sound isn’t working. In slow motion, Michael’s hat, along with the rest of him, backs up. Nods. Backs up. Nods. Backs up and nods again. Everything strips to black-and-white.
Then the sound comes on. Drifting across the grassy prairie, the Angelus bells ring out noontime from the mission church a mile away. “Lunchtime… lunchtime… lunchtime… lunchtime.”
Michael turns to face us from the far edge of the road. His face is white as ice cream. His eyes almost pop out of his head. Grabbing hold of his hat, he takes off running toward our house. Like scrambling soldiers in retreat, Jimmy and Danny and I claw and clamber our way out of the ditch. The bells clang on…. ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong. Up over the edge. Quick, fingers, quick! Grab wet reeds, tufts of crabgrass. Out of the ditch… Up, up, up. Come on up, onto the road. … Oops! A plastic pistol down, slipped from a holster. Quick–grab it up. Run, run. Pant, pant, pant. Scuffle, scuffle, scuffle. Cowboy boots scrape down the road. Whoa! Down goes a hat. Quick, pick it up … Back on your head. Scuffle, scuffle, scramble, scramble. We stumble down the pavement. Follow the racing Michael to the kitchen door over on the other side of the house, away from Julius’s. We make it safe to lunch.
Nobody wants to talk about it. So we don’t. Winded, we slide onto the benches around the table. Mumble grace. Look sheepishly at each other. Pass plates and sandwiches. Ask for bananas. Drink milk. Listen to what the girls have been doing all morning and the little kids. Hardly say a word about anything as we catch our breath.
Not long after, when Michael has gone back to his rebuilt house, Julius knocks on our kitchen door. He tips his greasy hat to our mother. He wears the same old blue bandana, suspenders on his pants, and dirty boots. His smelliness bites at your nose. What is he saying? He brings pink and white roses in a coffee can. Our mother seems surprised and takes the flowers. Says, “Thank you.” We all huddle in the kitchen—me, Dan, Kris, and the little kids, Terry and Paul and Jo. We watch Julius and my mother in the doorway. We can’t believe it.
After that, he knocks every now and then. He brings peonies or roses. Sometimes apples or pears or blackberries. Our mother takes the fruit and says “thank you.” After he leaves, she washes and washes it again and again. Sometimes even vinegar-washing won’t make it smell right. We’re never quick to eat it.
Nobody understands what Julius is talking about when he comes by with flowers and fruit. He hardly ever says words we know. Mainly he points and nods. Finally, after quite a few visits, our mother figures it out. She says that Julius is Catholic like us, that he has come to the prairie from Poland, and that he needs a prayer book.
At that, she sets to work. With the help of Sister Marietta, at the mission, a prayer book comes in the mail with everything in it written in Polish.
The next thing you know, every Sunday morning we stop next door on the way to church. All dressed up in the hats and dresses, jackets and ties that our mother makes, we all cram and scrunch and press and bunch ourselves without a word as far to the left side of the station wagon as we can get. To make room for Julius, who gets into the car on the right. Sunday after Sunday. Julius and us, going to Mass at the mission together. Pretty soon, it’s almost like we’re regular neighbors.
Nobody else knows how it started. When Jimmy and Danny and Michael and I set out to knock on Julius’s door. But Julius opened the door first.