Mayfair Burning

It was the Great Depression, and we, like all our neighbors, were forever short of cash money.  It was pinto beans and mashed potatoes all week, and on Sunday stringy meat which made my teeth shift in my gums.  It was burnt bacon and pan biscuits for my father’s breakfast, and flour gravy over biscuits for ours.  Mother did the best she could, and our clothes were well mended but faded from many boiling washtubs.  Old Mrs. Reiner delivered the milk in quart mason jars. She wore knee-high rubber boots and pulled a child’s wagon from her farm a mile up the clay road.

 By the time I was ten, my brother seven, and our sister five, we were sent away on Saturday afternoons to see a double feature movie, a couple of cartoons, and a Batman serial.  We were given eleven cents each for the tickets, and an extra nickel for sweets. Five cents went nowhere at the concession inside the theater, whereas at one of the grocery stores along the way a penny would buy enough whip licorice in red and black to make a cat-o’-nine-tails, a roll of candy coins in all flavors, and little peppery hearts for Sue.

 On a particularly raw February afternoon, the yellow ridges on the road to town were as hard as the backbone of one of Reiner’s skinny nags. Pools frozen in the hollows in the road were ragged mirrors reflecting the blue sky.  There had been wind during the night, and the ripples made in the creek stayed there in the bright sun.

 We stood inline with the other kids.  During the week we rode yellow school buses into town, but for the films many of them walked up from the mining camp in Minden, or along the tracks from the one in Lochghelly, the same as we had trudged through the bottom land from East End where our house, built on what used to be a field of watermelons and corn.  Huddled together on the other side of Main Street were the Negroes from Greentown and the nearly inaccessible recesses of the surrounding hills.

Now, finally the girl in the booth turned on the light and began selling tickets. The manager opened the right hand door into the vestibule of the theater.  The line moved more slowly than usual, and when it came my turn to ask for tickets I saw the hand-lettered notice:

Tickets now 13 cents.

There was a young father behind me, holding his two kids by the hand, and I considered asking him for the three cents I was short, but he looked away and seemed embarrassed, so I asked the lady for two tickets and took Jack and Sue inside.

“I got to go git some more money.  You two go on in and save me a seat.  And you keep close watch on your little sister, hear?  I won’t be more’n a couple of jiffies.” Their eyes were already wide open with the prospect of cowboys and Indians and yet another Frankenstein epic. Sometimes it seemed like Frankenstein had become an honorary citizen of Oak Hill.

Outside I hung around a little bit, looking for somebody I knew, maybe Gene Dickerson, who always had a pocketful of dimes and quarters, or one of the older guys from junior high who delivered The Fayette Tribune and collected on Saturdays.  I vowed right there and then, standing in the icy outdoors, that I would save up for a bicycle and take a paper route myself.  By the time I had scrutinized every face in the queue, the Negroes crossed the street to get their tickets.  I knew none of them would have anything to spare. Anyway why should they give it to a white boy they didn’t even know?

The clock inside the ticket booth showed it was ten minutes to show time.  I knew they would start with the previews, another five minutes, and then they always made you suffer through the war news, so I started running toward home. I might miss the beginning of Hopalong Cassidy, but his pictures really never got good until the saloon scene and fist fight half a reel down the line, so I figured I could just about make it back in time to still get my money’s worth.

I used all my short cuts, including cutting through quite a few backyards, to get home.  I was surprised the front door was locked, and went around back.  The back screen door was hooked tight too, and I put my face up against the mesh and shouted “Mom!” simultaneously rattling the door in its frame.

She tardied a little coming to the door, but then she was standing there with an astonished look on her face.  Her hair was messed up, and her face looked a little feverish. I wondered if she’d got sick since we left the house.  Then Dad was standing behind her in his undershirt, without his glasses. “What’s wrong, honey?” they both said one right behind the other.

I quickly spit it out, and Dad, holding up his britches with one hand – his suspenders hung down like they did when he was shaving – reached into his pocket with the other and slipped me a quarter. “You get back on up to town and look after your brother and sister.”

I felt just like Jesse Owens running back up Tully’s Hill. I had my mind on a king-size box of warm popcorn to take off the chill cutting through my mackinaw, when all of a sudden Trappy Warwick stood in my way. He grabbed my fist clutching the silver quarter and commenced gnawing on my knuckles. Trappy was a tall, skinny towhead from out at the State Road Garage. His daddy used to beat him with a two-by-four, so kicking his shins didn’t do a bit of good..  Blood ran between my fingers before I let go and he scampered like a weasel off down behind the Knights of Columbus building. I stamped my foot on the ice, fighting back the tears and looked around me for help.

On the other side of a thick hedge was a great white house set way back from the road.  I had passed this house many times, and it looked like the mayor or maybe the chief of police would live in such a place, so I ran up the driveway.  To my surprise it was Miss Allen, my Sunday school teacher, who came to the door. I pulled her toward the sidewalk, spilling my tale of woe, but of course old Trappy was long gone.  He probably already had his warty fingers wrapped around a Royal Crown and was halfway through wolfing down a box of Cracker Jacks.  She took me in, put iodine on my wound, gave me the first half dollar I ever owned, and shooed me off with little tisking sounds.

This time I put the coin in my pocket and double-timed it up over the last rise before town.

In the distance I could see smoke rolling up into the sky like negative clouds, black on white.  Closer, I felt the prickle of panic in my chest.  A crowd of folks stood in the street in front of the Mayfair, while others, coughing and hunched over, scuttled down the iron fire escape at the back.

Half the population of Oak Hill must have been watching the show.  It took a fair bit of time to locate Jack,and my first thought was what a good brother, the way he gripped Sue’s hand and kept her close by. I caught sight of our half-witted cousin right up in the front row, bouncing on his toes, while the fire, turning angry now, reflected off his thick glasses and a fine trickle of snot seemed frozen on his upper lip.

The fire engine came, hosed things down to a stench, and after the volunteers had stowed their equipment back among the brass fittings of the truck, rolled up the road toward the Town Hall.

Later, stuffing hot dogs with mustard and onion into our faces at the counter of Harry Hotdog’s Diner, Sue looked off into the distance.  “That nice monster was up on the top of the castle getting the little girl’s ball, and these crazy people just burned the whole place down.” She held her tiny hand up, her fingers curled in wonder.

“Anyway, the fire was better than the movie,” said Jack, who liked excitement of any kind.  “Who cares about a dang ball?”

In an earlier draft Patrick added:  In case you’re of a mind to doubt any part of this story, I’m here to say that it all happened.  Not on the same day, I have to admit.  Still and all, it’s the God’s truth.

Deia     August 7, 1977