A NIGHT ON HE TOWN

Or The Mystery of Minnie Marsden’s Garden

DAVID E. LEWIS April 1 1973

A NIGHT ON HE TOWN

Or The Mystery of Minnie Marsden’s Garden

DAVID E. LEWIS April 1 1973

A NIGHT ON HE TOWN

DAVID E. LEWIS

Or The Mystery of Minnie Marsden’s Garden

It was actually Henry’s father who was responsible for the whole thing. Henry and I were listening to the radio and playing gin rummy, and Henry’s father was listening to the radio and reading his newspaper. Suddenly he looked up and said, “I should think two healthy boys your age would be outdoors on a beautiful July evening like this.”

This triggered a stream of reminiscences which started with him as a boy of 10 milking eight cows before breakfast and ended when he ran away to sea at 14. Once Henry had been brash enough to comment that in Nova Scotia there was no other place to run away to, unless one confined himself to a circle. I considered that a reasonably logical comment, rare for Henry, but it earned him a licking. Henry and I came to the conclusion that parents didn’t have much use for logic. For one thing, they usually called it rudeness. And so we said nothing, while Henry’s father droned on. I suspect that “the good old days” are somewhat enhanced by nostalgia and exaggeration, for the first time Henry’s father told us about milking the cows there were only four, and the original race he had won as a boy in the Annapolis County Exhibition Athletics Meet was 300 yards a few years ago, but later it stretched into three miles, which would have placed the finishing line in the next county.

Henry’s father was quite capable of applying his favorite adage “Spare the rod” to the backside of the neighbor’s boy as well as to Henry’s, and I lived next door. The fathers had an unspoken agreement (I will refrain from calling it a gentlemen’s) that whenever their sons came home stinging from a neighbor’s strap, the punishment was duplicated at home. Thus we were more than hesitant to go home blatting that Mr. So-and-so had seen fit to punish us, and this made

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us peculiarly vulnerable. We had no recourse, particularly from Henry’s father, who usually had a hard day at the office and suffered from ulcers.

Anyway, this night Henry’s father finished his diatribe, and glared at us with a “let’s see you make a move” glint in his eye.

“I think I’ll go home,” I said, getting up off the floor.

The spaniel helplessness in Henry’s eyes somehow got through to my humanitarian instincts.

“Why don’t we . . . put up a tent in the backyard and sleep out tonight?” said Henry in a pleading tone.

“Now that’s a real good idea,” said Henry’s father. “When I was a boy of 14 my parents couldn’t keep me in the house on a night like this.” It occurred to me that everything Henry’s father told us about his youth had happened when he was 14, which was my age and Henry’s. At least when we turned 15 we could perhaps expect a new script.

“I don’t think my parents would let me,” I said weakly.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Henry’s father. “I’ll phone them and get it all arranged.”

There is probably nothing I hate more than putting up a tent, unless it’s sleeping in one. It occurred to me that friendship was a double-edged sword. Henry’s

tent was the type that needed pegs and knots and things, and the only badge I had ever earned in Boy Scouts was for good attendance. We decided to put it out behind the barn, because there was a light in the barn, and the last time we had attempted to raise the thing it had been in the daylight, and it had been a disaster. Henry kept looking at me with guilty eyes, perhaps because I was glaring at him, but I am sure his conscience was awake. After all, it really wasn’t my fault that his father had ulcers.

“Well,” I said sarcastically, “it seems a lot of bother just to get rid of us.”

“Yeah,” said Henry.

Finally we got it wobbly vertical and crawled inside. Henry’s mother had given us four peanut-butter sandwiches, two blankets, and a bunch of old comic books. A flashlight would have come in handy. It looked like Spartan fare to me, but I was getting on to adult thinking. We were, after all, about 500 yards from the house.

“Turn out that barn light,” Henry’s father yelled from the back door.

I looked at Henry. “It’s your barn,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Henry. He looked very dejected as he crawled out of the tent. It bothered me a bit that he crawled right over to the barn, too, but the things Henry does defy description. En route

back, in the dark, he tripped on a guy rope and the tent collapsed. He started to yell. Not only was I under the tent, but I was also under Henry. “Get off! get off!” I gasped in muffled tones. Finally I was extricated from the tangled mass of canvas and we stood looking down at it hopelessly. I knew Henry didn’t dare turn on the barn light again, regardless of the reason. Henry’s father was not prone to listen to logic.

“I’ve got it!” I said. “Barry’s cabin!”

Barry had a little clubhouse out behind his father’s house, and it was a meeting place for clandestine pleasures like telling dirty jokes, reading pilfered girlie magazines, and smoking cigarettes. If we were lucky, there might even be a beer or two hidden under the floorboard.

“I’ll get the sandwiches,” said Henry, suddenly enthused. He crawled into the flattened tent and in a few minutes came back with his usual spaniel look. “You sat on them,” he said gloomily.

I thought that I had showed considerable cool, and I exerted myself to show more. “That is the way the tent crumbles,” I merely said.

We decided to take the backyard route to Barry’s so as not to alert Henry’s father. That meant one considerable hazard — indeed, a minefield. It meant going through Minnie Marsden’s back-

yard. Minnie kept the town cop busy with constant SOSs that there were prowlers, thieves, Peeping Toms and vagrants in her backyard. Henry and I had often wondered what in the world a Peeping Tom would expect to see in Minnie’s house except her old Victorian piano, three budgie birds (which were named Fifi, Tipsy and Topsy) and Minnie herself, which seemed singularly unenticing fare. We were halfway through her petunia patch when the back-door light snapped on and Minnie was standing there, holding a broom and wearing a nightcap like Edna May Oliver’s in David Copperfield.

“Who’s there? who’s there?” she screamed, waving the broom like a drunken curler.

“Nobody!” shouted Henry, and the two of us took off in an Olympic burst of speed, over her fence, and well into Marlowe’s yard. We were safe. The Marlowes gave perpetual parties and made so much noise in their living room in the front of the house that it wouldn’t matter how much anyone made in the back. Meanwhile we could hear Minnie Marsden screaming, “Thieves! Prowlers! Peeping Toms! Rapists!” The lights started coming on in every window.

“Good grief!” whistled Henry.

When we reached the lilacs in Haworth’s yard, we stopped for a rest.

“That was a real dingdong you pulled back there,” I said.

“What?” said Henry. I could never decide whether Henry was naïve or just stupid.

“Yelling out, that’s what.” He began to look like a spaniel again. I found the only way to keep Henry from pending doom was to kick him when he’s down.

“There’s no one out here but us chickens! Jesus!” I said, and started for Barry’s clubhouse.

There were no lights in Barry’s house. Barry was at camp in Yarmouth, and so all we needed to do was reach the clubhouse. It was doubtful if we’d disturb Barry’s father. He and his wife had 17 kids, and he was only 45.

The door was locked, but we knew where the key was. At first we decided not to use the light, but Barry had rearranged everything, and we kept bruising ourselves on the orange crates. Finally I lit a match and reached down under the loose floor plank.

“Look!” I yelled, and lifted out two pints of beer and a small pack of cigars Barry had lifted from the drugstore.

“Shhhh!” said Henry.

We opened the beer. We lit up the cigars. I was beginning to like even Henry’s father who, after all, had precipitated the whole fiasco. I mean Henry opened the beer. He took two pints, and

snapped the cap off one, which I took, and that left him with an unopened one. Unkindly I commented, “You have a problem.” Finally he found a ledge, and after much splintering, he got it opened. We stretched out, a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other.

“Tell me,” said Henry, “what’s a rapist?”

“A what?”

“What Minnie Marsden called us.”

I remembered the English teacher telling us that the suffix “ist” meant someone who does something.

“It’s someone who rapes,” I said knowingly.

“Oh, yeah?” said Henry.

Suddenly the door burst opened, and Barry’s father shone a flashlight in our faces and snapped on the light in the cabin.

“Trespassers!” he yelled.

We both gulped.

“We’re . . . waiting for Barry,” said Henry.

“Barry’s at camp in Yarmouth, and you know it,” Barry’s father said.

Just then Henry’s father stepped in, and behind him, my father, and behind him Minnie Marsden, in her nightcap.

“There they are,” she screamed. “I saw them in the moonlight!”

She stared at us. “Prowlers!” she cried.

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Apparently she had decided to drop the rape charges because of our tender age. My father glared at me, at the beer, at the cigar, and then at me again. Barry’s father turned to Henry’s father.

“Don’t worry,” said Henry’s father. “Wait till I get him home!”

“Did you go through Miss Marsden’s garden?” said a stern voice, and there stood the town cop, Dick Martin. He didn’t sound like he did when we played softball together.

“We went right through,” I said lamely.

“Right through my petunia bed!” she

yelled. “You killed them!”

My God, I thought, we’re up on a murder charge.

“We didn’t mean to kill them,” said Henry.

Suddenly it struck me that it is impossible to kill a petunia. I gave Henry a dirty look.

“They’ll be over to replace your petunias, Minnie, don’t worry,” said my father, in an ominous tone.

I shall refrain from describing the Spanish Inquisition that took place in Bridgetown that night. I discovered that the fathers were admirably able to

handle their own sons without the cooperation of the neighbors. It was the only solace I had, for my father didn’t have ulcers. Henry and I were forbidden to see each other, but in a small town that is ridiculous. Each father, for a time, was cool with the other one, having concluded that the other man’s son was a bad influence on his own. But eventually they seemed rather amused at the whole thing. At the time they weren’t. In the interrogation period my father kept saying, “How many beers did you really have?” and I kept telling the truth — “One.” After a painful reiteration, it occurred to me, in my befoggled state, that it was the “one” that was irritating him. He could possibly be ashamed at a son who would settle for one beer. I tentatively suggested “Two?” and there was a noticeable mitigation period. I stopped at six.

When Henry and I met, down behind the feedstore, we compared our victimization. We tried to put the pieces together to find out what we had done. It seems that Minnie Marsden had called the town cop, who in turn had called parents, and Henry’s father had made a cursory check to find the tent on the ground. He assumed that we had never had any intention of sleeping in it, that we had an orgiastic night all planned. No one really listened to Minnie Marsden, although by the time her continuously exaggerated account reached the Ladies’ Aid, Henry was holding her down and I was all but attacking her.

Although the stories were repeated, no one really believed that if Henry and I had planned a bacchanalia we would have headed for Minnie Marsden’s. But in a small town gossip is spice in an otherwise insipid stew, and it was several weeks before Henry or I could go into the local garage without getting elbow nudges and sly winks and whispers.

Our reputation as real devils carried over into the school year, and in our grade-nine class there was a considerable juxtapositioning of seats so that several girls could sit next to me. Valentine’s Day I got four unsigned cards and six with names. Which really isn’t bad for one night out on the town, when you’re 14, and all you started off with is two peanut-butter sandwiches, and a dumb-dumb friend like Henry. ■