Blue Glass Horse
By Cathy Adams
In the summer we were always too loud for Mrs. Dill. She worked the night shift at the hospital and she slept during the day. In my yard across the street, we shrieked and ran while throwing a blue rubber ball at my dog. I knew it would bring her out. She pushed her kitchen window up. “You kids have got to keep the noise down or go down the street to somebody else’s yard,” said Mrs. Dill. Her cigar-sized fingers slid the window shut with a thump.
Mrs. Dill’s son, Ricky, drank twelve Cokes a day, or so someone claimed. We believed it because their garage was always lined with empty bottles like little caffeine soldiers. They were the tall ones too, twelve ounces.
A basketball goal hung over their garage, but we never got to play on it. The thumping noise of a dribbling basketball would surely cause Mrs. Dill’s brains to leak out of her ears and spill onto her red permed hair. Someone said she worked in the pediatric ward, but I think that was just to scare us, like the story of the hook in the car door.
When the school bus arrived at 7:15 in the morning, we would see her ambling out of her Comet in her driveway, dragging her feet from the nightshift. Ricky would still be asleep. “He takes all kinds of drugs,” someone said. “He’s got needles and dope and marijuana cigarettes all over his room.” But I knew none of us had ever been in his room. We wondered why he wasn’t over in Vietnam like our older brothers and young uncles. Why was he in there sucking down Cokes and playing Mott the Hoople at all hours while his mom tortured little kids at the hospital all night, every night?
Once as we were leaving for a church revival we heard moaning and crying coming from their house. “Why do you have to go on like that? Why?” I couldn’t tell whose voice it was. Daddy herded us into the car, saying it wasn’t our business. The next morning we got on the school bus as usual just as she was coming home. On the back of her head, dangling from a clump of red hair, was a single pink sponge roller. It must have been there all night and no one told her. We stuck our heads out the window and laughed as the bus passed by her house. I wondered if she had heard us and known we were laughing at her.
At the end of September Mrs. Walters, our neighbor from three houses down, had a cookout. She had to invite everyone or she’d be talked about, so most of the north side of Blackberry Lane showed up with trays of chopped vegetables and desserts. Mrs. Dill showed up dressed in pink and yellow seersucker culottes and carrying a plastic bowl of green bean salad. My brother, Ernie, said it probably had marijuana or some other kind of drugs in it, and when I saw Mr. Walters eat some I watched him for several minutes to see if he would start clawing at himself or screaming that he had bugs all over his body. It was the first time I remembered seeing Mrs. Dill at a neighborhood social event. I stood by the dessert table watching her until my mother snapped her fingers at me to cut it out. Mother put on her best Tupperware party smile and went over to talk to Mrs. Dill, patting her shoulder as she greeted her as if she were touching the skin of a large reptile.
“Ava, how are things at the hospital?” said Mother.
“Oh, things are going fine,” said Mrs. Dill. Mother’s face held its smile, waiting to see if she was going to say anything else. She didn’t.
“I believe somebody told me Ricky was about to start classes at the technical school learning air-conditioning repair. That’s a good field for a young man. We were hoping our oldest boy, Lawrence, would learn a good trade, but you know he’s in Vietnam,” said Mother.
“I know. Times are bad,” said Mrs. Dill, looking away. I stood next to Mother’s leg, trying to look disinterested yet hear every word.
“Edna brought some steamed shrimp, and it’s just yummy good,” said Mother.
“Shrimp makes my skin break out in hives.”
“What a shame,” said Mother, shaking her head with the same look on her face that she reserved for hearing announcements of cancer and bankruptcy. “I brought carrot sticks and dip.”
“Weather like this will turn mayonnaise based dip into a bowl of salmonella.”
I saw Mother’s Tupperware smile quiver a little on one side, and she made a polite but weak farewell. She moseyed over to Edna, leaving Ava Dill in a slumped little wad of seersucker on her lawn chair. I lingered behind and stared at the side of her face from behind the table. She must have seen me from the corner of her eye because she turned her head sideways and opened her eyes real wide. “Boo!”
The word made me jump, and I could feel my heart thumping hard in my chest. She gave a sly smile that made her look not so much cruel as mischievously amused with herself. I took a step backwards, fumbling with words that would not come, and then I took off running across the back yard where I stared back at Mrs. Dill from the safety of my mother’s leg amidst comforting chatter.
On Halloween I dressed as Barbara Eden’s character on I Dream of Jeannie, but my brother made fun of me because my costume was really just a pair of blue nylon pajamas my mom had stitched up with a sequined hat and sheer scarf around my neck. My brother dressed as a bandit with a black beard that he kept spitting from his bottom lip every time we said “Trick or treat.” By the time we got to the last house at the end of Blackberry Lane I was crying because my blue scarf had come untied and been dragged through a pile of dirty leaves before I knew it. Ernie told me I should blink my eyes and make it clean again, and then he laughed. All the way back down our street I whined, holding the ragged, dirty scarf in one hand and my treat bag in the other. We stopped short at the sight of Mrs. Dill’s house at the corner. One light was on in the kitchen and another was shining in the rear of the house where we presumed the bedrooms were. Tinny, high-pitched music played on a radio.
“Ricky must be home,” Ernie said.
“He probably doesn’t have any candy,” I said.
“I heard they’re giving Cracker Jack and Snickers and Three Musketeers. All you have to do is put your hand inside this box with a hole in the top and keep it there for five seconds.”
“No, I’m not. I heard it from some older kids when you were getting Sweet Tarts from Mrs. Vickerson. They showed me their candy. I’m not lying,” said Ernie.
Something in me told me there was no way Ricky Dill would happen to be giving all three of my favorite candies in the whole world, but my salivating mouth would not let me take the chance of passing up hitting the triple jackpot in the unlikely event that it was true. I tied the scarf in a knot and threw it over my shoulder to allow for a quick get away if it came down to that. We crept the ten yards of their driveway and into the open door of the garage. The music had a plunking, slow beat that I had not been able to make out from the street. Voices wailed up high and nasal against a one/two bass rhythm that turned out to be gospel music, not exactly the fare we expected from Ricky. I heard the sound of a cabinet door smacking shut, then footsteps padding across the kitchen and away from the door where we stood. Ernie and I motioned furiously at one another to ring the doorbell. Then he mouthed the most heinously insulting childhood word he knew - baby. I clenched my teeth in fury and defeat and poked a finger at the doorbell. It made a double toned ding-dong and the footsteps sounded again, a little faster this time, but plodding and hard. The door opened, and Mrs. Dill stood there in a snap-up housecoat. She held an ice pack to the side of her swollen face with her right hand and a bowl of candy in the other hand.
“Trick...trick,” was all I could get out. Ernie poked his head around me, saying nothing at all.
She leaned forward and held the bowl so I could reach into it. It was full of Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie Rolls, Chiclets, flavored taffies, and sweet pink wrapped bubble gum. My mother had warned us both about the uncouth practice of sifting through candy bowls, hoping to turn up superior candy from the bottom, so I took two Tootsie Rolls and dropped them in my bag. Ernie stood there with a wooly strand of beard hanging wet and shiny over his lip.
“Come on and get you some, too,” she said, nodding at the bowl. “I can’t eat any of this. I got an awful toothache.” She spoke as if her tongue was stuck in the side of her swollen mouth. Gospel music rang clearly behind her from a radio that I could see propped in the windowsill over the kitchen sink.
There’s no room for Jesus in a house that’s filled with Satan. Jesus wants to come in, but you just keep him a’waiting. If the devil’s in your larder, it will make things ever harder, til’ you open up the door and let the savior in.
There was something strange about hearing music about Satan coming from Mrs. Dill’s house, and I felt an urge to stick my head in the door to make sure he wasn’t sitting there at her kitchen table with a big pitchfork that he was using to poke her in the cheek and make her tooth ache.
“Thank you,” Ernie said from behind.
I waited until we got to the street to tell him what a liar he was. That had been the first time we had ever known her to be home on a school night. After we got home and inventoried our Halloween loot, we went to bed. I lay there imagining if maybe the devil was somewhere in her house waiting in the cupboard or sitting on a high shelf. And what would she do when she found him?
As the weather turned cooler and the darkness came earlier and earlier, we stayed inside more often. By the time the neighborhood was festooned with blinking lights and plug-in snowmen, the only sound we heard from the Dill house was the occasional grumbling of Ricky’s Mustang as he came and went at odd hours. Mrs. Dill’s Comet quietly purred out of the driveway after I was in bed and then back in again as I was leaving for school. We had our school Christmas pageant and I was an extra in the Inn, one of the heathen guests with a nice room who kept Mary and Joseph out. Mother reworked the I Dream of Jeannie costume and added a new striped scarf and shawl. When we got home from the play I was still flouncing about the den wearing my costume. I didn’t want to take it off, so Mom told me I could sleep in it since it was originally a pair of pajamas anyway. I put the hat with the new scarf at the foot of my bed and crawled into bed. I easily fell into a deep sleep until sometime late in the night when I heard the sound of high pitched hooting somewhere outside my window. I pulled the sheers back from my curtains and looked outside. There under the safety lights next to our driveway was Mrs. Dill, whirling around in the street wearing nothing but a slip in the freezing night. She held a box in her hands that she raised and lowered in front of her as if she were blessing the nighttime. Throwing the covers back, I ran for my parents’ room. Daddy and Mother had already heard it and were shuffling around grabbing coats and boots.
“Should we call the police?” Mother asked. Daddy ran his hands through his hair, confused and unsure of whom to call in the event of a dancing, hooting neighbor in her underwear.
“I guess so. I’m going to see if I can get her to come inside.” He took off out the door, then turned around and grabbed a raincoat from the closet. We watched from the den window as Daddy held the coat out in front of him like a toreador closing in a bull. When he got to Mrs. Dill under the street light she vigorously shook her head and guarded the box at her side. Daddy tried to put the coat around her shoulders, but she pushed him away. Mother hung up the phone after trying to explain what was happening to the police, and then she stood at the window ringing her hands.
“Maybe she’d be calmer with a woman out there.” She took off out the door, passing Ernie who stood half asleep with dazed eyes. I pushed past him and followed Mother outside.
“Oh, don’t let them come again! I can’t do with all of them at once. They tire me so.” Mrs. Dill waved her free hand at Daddy and clutched the box at her side. It was a shoebox with a string tied once around the middle and again long ways.
“Ava, come inside and let’s talk. I can make us some coffee,” said Mother. Another light flipped on from across the street and heads popped up in a window.
“I’m just so tired. I sweep them out, but they come back, and they shout at me,” said Mrs. Dill, her hand flying before her face, waving off some unseen menace. In Mrs. Dill’s partially darkened house the dim figure of Ricky stood in the den window. I could see the burning end of a cigarette in his mouth.
“You need to rest. You just need a little vacation is all,” said Daddy. The flashing blue lights crested the hill above our house and lit up the four of us standing in the street. House lights began popping on all over the neighborhood, and by the time the police got out of their cruiser neighbors were clustered on lawns all up and down Blackberry Lane. Lena Brownley clutched at the neck of her pink housecoat and ran across the street to Mrs. Dill. I had never seen her in hair curlers before. Her head looked twice its normal size.
“Come on Ava, honey. It’s going to be all right,” said Mrs. Brownley, putting an arm around Mrs. Dill’s shoulders.
“Put Dan’s coat on, dear, so you don’t freeze to death,” said Mother.
“No, no, nooo!” screamed Mrs. Dill. The police officers took her by the arms, and she dropped her weight to the ground, trying desperately to guard the box under her body. Daddy tried to help pull her up in the struggle, and it became a grunting, screaming match with one officer’s hat being knocked off by Mrs. Dill who raged against them all.
“Ava! Ava, honey!” Mother said, holding her hands helplessly in front of her in a prayer steeple as they dragged Mrs. Dill toward the car with Daddy trying to cover her with the raincoat. Mother noticed me for the first time, and she waved me back with her hands. One of the officers had Mrs. Dill by her left leg and was trying to push her into the car while the other officer guided her head and shoulders, but she grabbed the patrol car door and held fast. The box was flipped to the rear of the car as she struggled against the officers. Daddy stood behind the door holding the coat up as a shield trying either to spare her from flashing her half dressed body to the whole neighborhood, or keep the neighbors from gawking at the painful spectacle of seeing her dragged away like that.
While everyone’s eyes were on Mrs. Dill, I ran to the back wheel and grabbed the box. Holding it close to my chest, I ran all the way back inside our house. The blue lights blinked across the stunned faces of our neighbors as I slammed the door on the entire scene.
Even though I wanted to open it right then and there, I waited a few minutes before I found the courage to pull the lid off. I could see it before I opened it, like in the movies when the cover to the tomb slides off and inside is the hideous, rotten skeleton that you knew would be there yet it scared you anyway. I sat on the edge of my bed with the box in my lap. My sweaty hands pulled at the bowstring tied at the top and it fell off easily. Slipping my fingers under either side of the lid, I felt my heart thumping almost as hard as the night Ernie and I went trick-or-treating at Mrs. Dill’s house. The lid fell onto the bed.
A small gold cross lay across the top of a pair of gray, wrinkled baby shoes. Inside one of the shoes was a tiny scarecrow doll with a stitched on mouth and arms held straight out on a wooden stick. A blue ribbon for first place in a horse show was awarded to Ava Thornberry and dated 1942, according to the card on the back. A book of poems, Best Loved Children’s Verse of 1938. I reached into the bottom and pulled up a dried out leather pouch with rotten pull strings. Something rattled inside, and when I opened it I saw seven coins, each with foreign symbols and letters I didn’t recognize. I picked up a gummy coin and turned it over in my fingers. The bottom of the box was covered in assorted useless junk; rubber bands, paper clips, some old photographs, and a couple of golf tees. One last thing caught my eye. A blue glass horse a bit larger than a thimble lay on its side amidst the rubble. I could hold it between my two fingers and look right through its milky blue body. I tried to stand it up on my bedside table, but one of the rear legs had been broken off, and it fell onto its side. In the bathroom I cleaned it under the faucet until it sparkled. The break from the missing leg was clean across. I could hold it in my squeezed tight fist, and no one would ever know it was there. I held it in the palm of my hand, wondering why it was in Mrs. Dill’s box, the one she chose to carry outside with her when she was so desperate and afraid. It was mismatched junk, broken and mostly useless: relics of a past not pretty or interesting enough to mean anything to anyone, except perhaps Mrs. Dill.
The next day I asked Mother where they had taken Mrs. Dill, but all I got were evasive answers about her being in a special place where people go to rest. That sounded like a big bed to me. Ernie said he heard from Philben Marksley, the boy who lived in the brown house two lots from the end on the left, that she had been taken to Shockley’s mental hospital, and she was strapped down to a bed and given shock treatment two times daily. He wasn’t fooling me this time, and I told him so.
No one knew I had the box. I guess they thought the police picked it up. I kept it under my bed, taking out pieces every day, looking them over and searching for clues that maybe I had missed the day before. The photographs were what I studied the longest. In one Mrs. Dill wore a maternity dress and held a small dog. She wore a round hat and though the photo was dingy with age I knew her gloves must have been perfectly white. The date the back read Mar’ 1950. Her hair was curled around her face, and she wore high-heeled ankle strap shoes on her stumpy legs. I never thought of Mrs. Dill as ever looking like anything other than a tree stump with frizzy red hair. She wasn’t pretty in the photograph, but she was certainly wasn’t the same woman I had seen running in the street that night. In another photograph was a tall man in a suit with a face that was impatient and bored. His hands were crossed in front of his crotch the way our church deacons do while waiting to take the offering plates down the aisles. In the corner of the photograph was the hind end of the dog not quite making it out of the shot. The other two shots were of a small brick house, one from the left angle and another from the right, but it wasn’t one of the houses on our street. It was some place Mrs. Dill must have lived long before she came to our neighborhood. I tried to imagine her running around that little brick house in a lacy nylon slip and no shoes.
I studied the photographs in the privacy of my bedroom every day, memorizing the faces and making up stories about the man. I assumed he was the father of Ricky, about whom I had heard bits and pieces since I was small. The man disappeared years earlier, right after they moved into the house. No one knew them then, so hardly anyone noticed when one day there was a man in the house, and then one day there wasn’t. The man didn’t look much like Ricky. His eyes were small and washed out with an angry look that said he wanted to be somewhere else. I guess in that way he did look like Ricky.
I didn’t give much thought about what I would do with the contents of Mrs. Dill’s box until the day she returned home. No one saw her return, and we all wondered if she had been brought back in an ambulance with the siren turned off in the middle of the night. Mrs. Brownley was the first to notice Mrs. Dill sweeping out her garage one morning. She relayed to Mother later that morning how she rushed over to see how Mrs. Dill was doing, and said she acted as if she didn’t remember she had been gone. She kept sweeping the floor and saying everything was fine. Mrs. Brownley went home and continued watching her from a window. She said Mrs. Dill swept that garage for a full half-hour, and when she was finished there couldn’t have been three specks of dust anywhere.
Soon Mrs. Dill was back at work. Her Comet left at the exact same time in the evening and returned again in the frosty mornings when we left for school. During that first week of her return was when the carry-over dishes began. It was done as much out of curiosity as concern, though I know none of the ladies of Blackberry Lane would have admitted it. Each evening someone different from the neighborhood would cook a casserole, cake, macaroni and cheese, or Jell-O salad, and carry it over. When she returned home the telephone lines would fire up all over the neighborhood reporting what she had seen or heard. We heard the house was filthy, that Ricky lay sleeping on the sofa surrounded by Coke bottles, that her laundry was piled up in a corner needing to be washed, and that she sat in a chair by the window holding a doll’s sailor hat in her hands. Mother said she didn’t know what to believe, and she shook her head in sympathy and curiosity whenever the subject came up in back yards or over clotheslines. She had been the one who “found” Mrs. Dill, and she enjoyed a kind of twisted celebrity status from neighbors who happened by and wanted the lowdown on what “really” happened that night.
I kept the box under my bed and took it out only at night after the house was quiet. On weekends when Mrs. Dill was off she was still up at night because she was so used to sleeping during the day. On Saturday nights I could look out my bedroom window and watch her den lights until I fell asleep.
I don’t know what it was that motivated me to take the box back to Mrs. Dill. I knew from the beginning that I was just keeping it for her until, until something. I told myself I had it to keep her things safe. It was my job to keep prying eyes from her most personal, special hidden stuff. It was something that an eight-year-old could understand. Everyone would have clucked their tongues at it, gawked at it, picked over it the way those dirty, claw-handed people did in a movie I saw about Scrooge. It all became so personal; her baby shoes, the pictures, the gold cross, and even the little ghost cookie cutter that I had first mistaken for a piece of broken metal.
I heard Mother talking to Mrs. Brownley on the telephone late one night in January. Mother said something about Ricky staying on his medication and bless-her- heart-no-wonder-she-can’t-cope. I pulled on my flannel robe and sneakers, and took the box from underneath my bed. Opening it one last time, I checked over the contents. The only thing I had taken out of the box was the glass horse. It stood barely an inch high on my dresser, majestic and glittering with a wad of tissue holding up its hind end. Surely she wouldn’t miss that one thing, but it was beautiful and it did belong to her. I lifted it between my fingers carefully and lay it on the top of the baby shoes. I wanted her to see it had been cleaned and that I had taken good care of it. I closed the lid and slipped out the front door while Mother yakked on the phone and Daddy snoozed in his chair during the evening news.
I ran a few yards up the street and crossed at a place with the least light. I had to cross a ditch and walk across the cold, wet grass on the side of Mrs. Dill’s yard. I heard a plinking noise in the kitchen and knew by the familiar sound that she was washing up the evening’s dishes. This time there was no radio; she was singing to herself. The tune was slow but chirpy, something I had heard on the easy listening radio station that Mother always played in the car. Ricky’s car was not in the garage. He had been gone a lot lately, and the ladies of the neighborhood had agreed in their telephone tree that it was the best thing he could do for his mother.
I stood at the rear of the garage so that the light would not catch me, wondering if I should ring the doorbell or just leave the box on the floor and run home. She moved past the door going to the kitchen closet, and I felt my heart jump. If she had turned her head to the left she would have seen me standing there. I placed the box next to the front wheel of the Comet where she would have to step over it when she came out. I turned to go, and then I stopped and looked at the box one last time. I crouched down and opened it. The horse had slid into one of the shoes, and I fished it out and looked at it for what seemed like a dangerously long time. Finally, I closed my fist around it and ran across the street to my driveway right through the circle of the safety light. Behind me I heard the kitchen screen door open, and I turned around to see her dim figure bending over the box. Her head looked misshapen, and then I saw that she was wearing pink curlers.
She stood up and looked around, the box in her hands. I ducked behind my Daddy’s Ford Fairlane and waited until I heard her screen door smack shut again. The glass horse fit snugly in my fist, warm and hidden in my palm against the freezing January blackness.