Saturday was cool and clear. A few dark wisps of cloud scurried along the horizon, clearing away Friday night’s storm. The calves and lambs butted and pranced, skidding in the mud. The first heron of the year croaked at the far end of the pond. The orchard orioles were back. I made John Deere noises as I slid my feet through puddles and cow piles, carrying buckets of feed. There was no way we’d be in the field, today.
After my chores, I got permission, took a handful of coins and hopped astride my rattling bicycle to pay a call on Clarence Hall. After a good mile’s pedal, I arrived at his house. On a wooden frame which held his mail box was a sign that read:
Lincoln All kinds of
Things made here
I leant my bicycle against the sagging picket fence, slipped the wire over the post and stepped through the squawking gate. His house was a one storey frame building of bare weatherboard, one small room wide by about three long, which had long ago resigned itself to following the contours of the ground between the day lilies and daffodils, probably planted by his mother. It was roofed with clapboard shingles which he’d undoubtedly split himself, and the front door and windows were tightly boarded over. On the south, one windowless door opened to face the well and a couple of sheds.
I didn’t see him out and about, so I knocked. An earnest house wren called from somewhere. An aluminum measuring cup rocked idly on its wire in the breeze sighing in the cedars. I knocked again and hollered: “Clarence?”
“What?” he barked, throwing open the door, giving me a start. He closed it behind him at once and hooked it as a dank reek of coal oil and foul clothes whirled away into the air. “What d’ye want?”
“I came for a couple of things, really,” I stammered. “Do you have Abe Lincoln’s old gun? Could I…?”
“No!” he barked, giving me a shudder. “I ain’t got hit! They ain’t goin’ ‘o get hit ’cause I ain’t got hit.”
“Well, I thought I might buy one of your toys, if you’ve got any made.”
“Well yea!” he boomed, taking a couple of sudden strides toward his shed to stop short, not turning about. “What’s you ones want with play pretties? Ain’t you a little old for that? I see you go by on your Fordson.”
“Well, I ain’t too old! I won’t tell no one,” he, said as he tramped on to the shed to fiddle with the latch and throw wide the door. “There ye be. Look ‘ee here. Got all kinds. He scratched at his jaw through his filthy Lincoln-style beard. He gave a brown spit and turned aside to blow his nose into the grass and wipe his hand on his sooty bib overalls. “Got all kinds. Now these’ns be whirligigs and them’s windmills.
“Ah! Somebody’s here,” he said, looking up at the sound of popping gravel by the mailbox. “Here! You get out o’ there. You set on that there stump.”
I took my seat meekly as he tramped into his dark house and came back out, dawning an ancient stove-pipe hat. He stood straight and marched to the gate. “Morning !” he called out, as they clambered out of their new Buick hard top.
“Hi,” said the pasty white driver in Bermuda shorts. “We’re from Oak Park. Ya probably don’t know where that is, but it’s right by Chicago. We’re touring da Lincoln attractions. We’re on our way back from his birthplace in Kentucky. You look like da president himself. You got souvenirs for sale, do ya?”
“Yeap! Right this a-way.”
Here they came single file behind Clarence, Mr. Shorts followed by his two ladies, dressed fit to kill in the latest, latest suburban leisure wear, one as white as a termite pupa, the other bronzed and buttered. They minced along as if the very grass were vulgar. “Hi ya Huckleberry,” scoffed Mr. Shorts as he passed, with the ladies half smiling and avoiding my eyes.
I certainly needed a good reply, but all I managed was to look away mutely in my straw hat, bare feet and breeches rolled up to my knees, all spattered with mud from the rain-soaked barn lot. And I did no better when they passed by on their way back to their car.
“Well they’s gone, “said Clarence from behind. “Do ye still want to look at them play pretties?”
“They’s right where they was.”
I followed him back to the shed. His wares were crude, brightly painted yard ornaments and wind driven novelties, such as ducks and geese with whirligig wings or little men who rocked back and forth in the wind, sawing wood. He had wooden pistols and daggers. He had his shed piled with all sizes of lop-sided rocking chairs, some small enough for doll houses. I picked out a dirty pink one, about a hand and a half high. “Do you have any clappers?”
“Now what’s that?”
“John Best told me about…”
“Oh yea! The new one, little Barbara. Here,” he said, shoving a pile of noise makers at me.
I picked out one that seemed to work the best. “What do you want for this and the rocking chair?”
“Twenty-nine cents. Twenty-nine cents for each one.”
I pulled out my fist full of change and fingered the coins.
“There! Them two! Them two will do,” he said, pointing to a couple of quarters.
Clarence was slow witted, but he did support himself. Getting a driver’s license might have been beyond him, but he made toys and he helped roof barns, hoe and put up hay. There was indeed a place for him in the neighborhood. I think about this when we drive through modern places with assertive institutions and see bag ladies and bums living out of shopping carts.