Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Poochie’s mom told him it was too early. “There’s no sense you goin’ there ahead of time, - you won’t get your candy any sooner.” But Poochie put on his pea coat and stuck a flashlight into his pocket. He huffed down the front steps and across the street. “Cover your ears,” Poochie’s mom shouted after him.
Poochie walked past the Methodist Church and down the hill onto the short, two-lane bridge that crossed the river, which was more of a creek than a river by the time it trickled out of the mountains and meandered into the lake at the town beach.
Poochie stopped in the middle of the bridge and leaned over the railing. He worked up a bunch of saliva and spit into the creek, grinning and pointing at the glob as it slid off a boulder into a rivulet of clear water.
Sunrays glinted off the lake and made Poochie squint. He lifted his face to feel the warmth. If his mom had been there, she would have said, “The sun hasn't had time to turn up the heat.” Poochie yanked down his ear flaps, letting the strings hang over his shoulders. He picked up a pebble, rubbed it on his pants, licked it, and stuck it in his pocket, where it clanked against his flashlight.
Poochie plodded up the hill and crossed the street. He walked past the abandoned gas station and peeked in the windows of the firehouse before stopping outside of Goodenough’s. The grocery didn't open until 9:00 a.m., but Poochie didn't think much about time or schedules or tradition. Poochie didn't think much about anything.
For the first few minutes at Goodenough’s, Poochie directed traffic. He guided a Trailways bus down the hill, imitating its brake squeals and engine guns as it crossed the bridge, went up the hill, and disappeared around the corner to the other side of town. Passengers pointed and laughed at the disheveled fat man in orange boots pretending to be a traffic cop. Poochie laughed and waved, the bright bulb of his flashlight reflecting on the fender.
When he tired of playing street cop, Poochie wandered to the front door and plopped onto the rotting bench next to buckets of dead plants and cigarette butts. He poked inside his pockets for a treasure and pulled out a wad of gum; it was hard and covered in coat-lint. He stuck the lump into his mouth and gnawed it down to a good chew.
The ear-splitting scream of the fire siren made Poochie jump off the bench and stand in stunned, unexpected excitement. The sensations were almost unbearable. A fire. Probably a big one. He watched, gape-mouthed, as police cars and volunteer firemen careened from all directions and skidded to stops, drivers jumping out and running inside. Poochie grabbed his flashlight and headed to the firehouse. They’d need him.
He hustled into the street, almost getting run over. The driver rolled down his window. “Watch out, will ya, Poochie? Yur gonna get yourself hurt.”
Poochie made a beeline to the fire truck and hopped onto the runner. The fire chief shouted from the side of the truck. “Why don’t you just run along home, now, ok, Poochie? We’ll let you know when you can help out. Today’s not such a good time.”
Poochie jumped off the runner defeated and sad, but mostly confused— his dilemma larger than his brainpower. He wanted his candy. But this was a special surprise. A fire. And he wanted to go to it—and help.
A fire at the fairgrounds the summer before had thrilled him. The fire had started in the horse stable while Poochie was helping park cars in the middle of the racetrack. When he saw the flames shooting up on the other side of the fence, he stuffed his flashlight into his pants pocket and ran over to the stable to watch. He marveled at the sparks as they flew up and up and up into the tree, crackling against branches. Red shards leapt against the bark and bounced to the ground, catching leaves on fire. The horses screamed horrible whinny cries. Poochie had never heard those sounds before - nothing like the soft purrs he remembered.
The scared horses, eyes wild, heads thrashing, jerked and trounced as the owners dragged them to safety. Poochie was sad that two horses died. The blackened, charred hides and the acrid smell of burnt horseflesh stayed in Poochie’s memory and mixed with the exhilaration and horror and devastation—sensations he didn’t quite understand and could never talk about. His language too inadequate to explain anything that ever really mattered.
Poochie watched the firefighters put on their protective clothing and jump onto the truck.
“Poochie! Get outta the way,” the fire chief shouted. He grabbed Poochie’s sleeve and dragged him off the ramp just as the truck backed up. Poochie’s knees buckled and his feet scrapped along the cement. He fell into the weeds, landing on his behind and elbow. He started to cry. Tears streaked tracks of white down his dirty cheeks and fell through his second day growth of beard. The chief helped Poochie up and brushed him off. “Go along now, Poochie. Go on back to Goodenough’s— or go home.”
Poochie wiped his eyes and looked up at Goodenough’s. He remembered his candy. It was Saturday, September 25, 1965, and it was Poochie’s 35th birthday.
Poochie didn’t have much between the ears, but he always knew when it was his birthday. It was the one thing he loved more than anything. Even more than Christmas. Poochie’s mother had downplayed Christmas as he was growing up because they couldn’t afford both. Poochie didn’t understand too much about celebrating a religious holiday and rather than have two special days for Poochie, she settled on having Poochie’s birthday be the one day of the year he got things he wouldn’t otherwise have. Each year she made him a big vanilla cake, with his name spelled out in wild blackberries. As Poochie got older, she helped him spell out his own name with the blackberries. And then she let him put on the candles, counting them as he went. As long as his mother was next to him, he was allowed to light his own candles before he blew them out. Poochie also received a nice present from his mother – a present of his choosing. Usually he chose a new flashlight—another, bigger, better flashlight—for seeing in the dark, making shadows, and directing traffic anywhere, especially at the fair.
At Christmas, Poochie’s mother filled a stocking with the same things every year—candy, mittens, socks, a big orange in the toe, and flashlight batteries. She hung the stocking on the footboard knob of Poochie’s bed so he would find it right away when woke up on Christmas morning. Poochie would come running into the kitchen with his stocking and announce that he had “thomthin thpethal” on his bed. Every year he’d wonder who put it there, and every year his mother would say, “Santa put it there.” And every year Poochie would ask “Hooth thanta?” And his mother would answer the same way every year. “Santa brings growing boys a stocking of goodies on Christmas Day.” And then Poochie would want to know where Santa lived and if he had a birthday and was it on the calendar at “Goodynuth.”
All his growing up years, Poochie didn’t make much of a connection between his filled stocking on Christmas and the lights and decorations all over town. But he did know that getting a stocking full of goodies meant the calendar would soon be at Goodenough’s.
When Poochie was very little, the Chamber of Commerce had begun the tradition of making a calendar documenting the birthdays of everyone in the village. Each year the birthday calendars were delivered to all the businesses in town two days after Christmas. And as soon as Poochie saw his goodie stocking hanging on his bed knob, he knew the birthday calendar would be at Goodenough’s in two days. And he would be there to greet it. Because Myrna always circled Poochie’s birthday on her store calendar.
Billy’s Diner had a calendar. So did Vrooman’s General Store and the post office and the bank. But Poochie didn’t like to go to those places. He liked it at Goodenough’s. Myrna was nice. She didn’t make him feel bad. And she didn’t shoo him away when he wanted to look at the calendar.
The year before, Poochie waited an hour in a snowstorm for Myrna to come and unlock the store. When Poochie finally got inside, he stood next to the cash register until the delivery kid plopped the calendar on the counter. Poochie waved the calendar in the air at Myrna, still in the back stomping snow off her boots and turning on the lights.
“Se-cul my name, se-cul my name,” Poochie shouted. He had waited so long for this day, this moment, this second, when his birthday would be circled on the calendar.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Poochie.” She sighed. “Just hold on.”
She had once confessed to a co-worker that “Poochie was a confused bag of innocence, affection, and full-blown exasperation. I can manage about five minutes before I go batty—kinda like my grandchildren, or my dog, who pester and pester and pester until satisfied. Drives me crazy. But they give a bucket-load of unconditional love.” She laughed. “And you can’t help but love ‘em back, as obnoxious as they are.”
“Ok, Poochie, let’s open the calendar and find your birthday,” Myrna said. “Why don’t you do it this time?”
“I wanna penthil.” Myrna put a pencil on the counter and watched as Poochie opened the calendar. He began at January and turned each page, pointing at what he recognized in the picture. Every now and then he looked up at Myrna and told her what he saw. “Thath a boat. . . an . . . an thath . . . thath a twee . . . wif a leaf,” until he came to his own month. He stopped turning the pages and pointed at the word September. He knew that one.
“Theptemba,” Poochie said and grinned again at Myrna. He placed his index finger on September 1 and slid his finger across all the boxes, some with names typed in them, saying each number out loud, until he came to September 22. “Thath my buthay. Theee? Thath my name . . . Poohie Whee,” he said proudly, and he pointed to his name typed in capital letters POOCHIE WHEAT. He picked up the pencil and drew a shaky circle around the day. “I come heah an git candy on my buthay, wite?”
“Yes, Poochie,” Myrna said. “You come here and get your candy on your birthday. Now run along home, Kiddo, I’ve got work to do.” Myrna said.
Poochie watched Myrna hang the calendar next to the announcements on the bulletin board, right inside the entrance to the store, where everyone could see it. “Bye Munah, I be back,” Poochie said as he walked out into the snow.
Beginning in January, Poochie visited Goodenough’s almost every day. He’d leafed through the pages of the calendar until he came to September. And as he had done the day the calendar had been hung up, he’d place his index finger on September 1 and slide across all the numbers, saying each one out loud, “un, too, thee, fuh, fi, si, sen, . . .” until he came to September 22. “Thath my buthday. Thee? Thath my name. . . wite theh.” He’d tap the date and turn around looking for people to show. Mostly it was just Myrna who saw.
“You look happy, Poochie,” Myrna said as she walked up from the store parking area. “Must be a special day, or something!”
“Hi, Munah, theys a fya,” Poochie said. “A big un!” Poochie spread his arms wide.
“I know, Poochie. I saw the trucks go by, and I heard the sirens.” Myrna unlocked the door and they went in together. “It sure does sound like a big one. Do you know where it is?”
“Na, they thay I can’t go,” said Poochie. He went to the calendar and took the pin out. The calendar was old and yellowed—streaked from almost a year’s worth of Poochie’s fingers leafing through the months, looking for his name.
“Ith my buthday – tuday, Munah,”
“Well, Poochie, I guess it is. And I think I have something for you,” said Myrna. “What would you like? You can go to the candy counter and take five things. Your choice.”
Poochie didn’t get many choices. He was used to being told what to wear, what to eat, and where to go. He looked at the Mounds, Baby Ruth, 5th Avenue, Mars, Milky Way. He looked at Tootsie Rolls and Good and Plenties and Necco Wafers and Bit-O-Honey. And gum. Black Jack and Spearmint and Chicklets. Poochie stared at the shelves of candy. He picked one up and put it down. He touched one and another one and another one. He began to rock and breath hard—a whimper rose from his throat.
Myrna came up behind him with a wax paper bag, and said, “Here Poochie – let me help you. I’ll make it a surprise. You stand over here.”
Poochie’s breathing settled. Myrna plopped a handful of candy bars, some gum, and a package of licorice into the bag. “I gave you more than five, Poochie. It’s nice to have a lot on your birthday.” When she turned around, she saw that Poochie had gone to the window and was watching one of the fire trucks pull into the station.
“Here’s your candy, Poochie,” Myrna called.
Poochie grabbed the bag and practically tripped over his orange boots in his hurry to get out of the store and down to the fire excitement.
Maybe he could help.
EVS - 10/11
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