Marc Ridge, Guest Contributor
“When you’ve reached bottom, you hear knocking below.”
It was during the autumn of 1963 that I learned the real difference between being rich and being poor. I had always thought that my family was poor. Dad said we were beggars, but Mom said we were middle-class poor. Both my parents seemed to earn enough money, but for some reason they always ran short of cash towards the end of the month. Don’t get me wrong, we never went hungry–unlike my closest friend’s family did nearly every week.
Jason Hoag’s father was the town drunk in Noble, Indiana during the sixties, leaving Jase’s mother precious little money for groceries. Many days, all Jase had to eat would be a cheese sandwich and that warmed-over compartment food the school called lunch. Even though my Mom worked a full-time job, she saw to it that I ate two hot meals at home (breakfast and supper) and fixed us (my brother, sister and me) bag lunches consisting of fried egg sandwiches or BLTs—or, to my horror, chicken or tuna salad—an apple or orange and a Ding Dong or two. And, of course, every morning she left me some money for snacks and mid-afternoon milk.
During most of his life, my Dad worked as a truck driver. He earned about five hundred dollars a week. However, most of his money went to such expenses as insurance, state, county and federal taxes, and monthly payments for the purchase of the truck. Such were the pleasures, and curses, of being one’s own boss.
Mom worked for Sears when it was still ‘Sears & Roebuck.’ She was assistant head cashier—not the kind that stand at the cash register with dull glazed looks and judging you for purchasing, with plastic cards, merchandise you probably can’t afford anyway, but an integral part of the real and pseudo-accountants handling the records and money for the entire store. Hours were reasonable and pay satisfactory, although not overly exciting.
Their paychecks combined were able to pay for a new house, furniture, and two cars, not to mention the care and feeding of four horses. Every August my older brother, sister, and I were forced to accompany Mom to Sears & Roebuck, up to the new mall in Bloomington, for the purchasing of new school clothes. (With mild complaints from Mom that we needed to learn to stop growing so fast.) Moreover, holidays at my house looked like a Norman Rockwell painting with decorations everywhere, the aroma of assorted foods—hams, turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes and such—cooking in the kitchen intermingled with the sweet smell of chocolate and peanut butter fudge, and freshly heated apple cider.
Even so, I still thought of us as poor.
Jase and I had another friend we were sure was rich; however, he never lorded his position over us or even let on that he noticed our financial situations were much different from his. He was fond of saying things like, ‘it’ll all even out someday,’ and, ‘it’s only money.’ Of course, back in 1963, about the only things we really cared about were drinking sodas and going to the movies, so we didn’t really need much money anyway. (Soda costing about a dime for a twelve-ounce bottle and a day at the Artcraft Theater right around thirty-five cents for two shows.)
Our friend, Michael J. Bear of the Indiana Bears, was not exactly Old World money, but he was still better off than most because he received a weekly allowance of twenty dollars; it was given to him by his father for, as he’d say, ‘just being a good kid.’
Jase and I had to work our rears off cleaning horse stalls and mowing lawns (five dollars per lawn and three dollars per stall), which was in addition to all the other work we were expected to do out to the Noble Horse Barns. And, of course, Jase would often give half of his money to his mother to help buy food for the family.
Michael usually refused payment when he’d help us, saying that being allowed to do the work was reward enough.
Noble, Indiana is a small town of only about ten-odd thousand residents, many of whom live on the outlying farms. It has two elementary schools, so no one living in town has to walk further than a mile one way to school, which is handy during the winter months when snow can get as high as three feet. Economically, there isn’t really much difference between the greater portion of residents. Many of the more successful people live on the South Side of town in older but more expensive houses. The moderate-income families live predominately on the East and North Sides in newer prefab houses on neatly designed lots in neighborhoods known for their prosperity according to the design of the houses available for the lots. Designs in 1963 consisted mainly of one-story two and three bedroom homes without garages to two-story four and five bedroom homes with attached two car garages on a full half acre of land.
In-between the Upper North Side and the Lower East Side are the two-story duplexes. These low rent neighborhoods comprise what my friends and I dubbed the Noble Slums. A place my family lived until my Mom decided she’d had enough of paying rent for substandard housing, and bought one of those cracker-box prefab houses on the East Side in 1961. During our school years, Jase’s family never was able to escape the duplexes.
Jase, Michael and I have been friends since kindergarten—somehow managing to even be placed in the same classrooms throughout elementary school. In sixth grade, a new kid came to our school, a boy named Lloyd Johnson.
Lloyd was small for his age and spent all of his free time with his head down on his desk sleeping or crying. Well, not all of his free time was spent like that. Sometimes he’d just stare off into space. It was something that gave the girls in the class the creeps. Mainly because you’d think he was looking at you with those dull-witted filmy eyes, when in fact he was hardly aware of anything going on around him. It seemed to me at the time that our teacher, Mrs. Krule, took pleasure in slamming her yardstick on Lloyd’s desk.
“Lloyd! Wake up!”
Something she did about seven times a day although it never did any good. It seemed to my friends and me that Lloyd was lost in a world far removed from the one the rest of us were confined to.
If my family was middle-class poor and Jase’s family was real poor, then Lloyd’s had to be dirt poor. I could tell Lloyd didn’t really care much about what the other kids thought of him, or the fact that he was less better off than they were. The dull, faraway look on his tired face proved he just figured that was how things were meant to be. Whenever the other kids would tease Lloyd, Jase would step in to defend him, which meant I’d end up having to pull Jase off some smart-lipped kid before knives came out and some real damage occurred. Much of the teasing centered upon Lloyd’s hygiene practices, or lack thereof.
As far as I knew, Lloyd owned two pairs of pants and perhaps three shirts, all of which, judging from their condition, he probably owned since fourth grade. His skin always had a grayish coloring to it, almost like someone had rubbed ash into his flesh until no amount of scrubbing could make the dirt disappear. During the time I knew him, the dark circles around his eyes began to grow worse earning him the nickname of Spooky—a name Jase, Michael and I loathed and never used in reference to Lloyd. Even though I came to know that Lloyd did wash thoroughly every day, for all the good it did him, he still produced a strange odor that was mildly offensive by lunchtime. But a lot of kids had odors during the first stages of puberty; especially, one girl in our class who truly stank and was often teased by our classmates as being ‘Lloyd’s wife.’
Yes, Jenna stank. Really stank. I sat in the back of the first row, and she sat in the back of the sixth row, mercifully near an open window, and I still choked from her smell if a strong breeze sprang up. Everyone in the class thought she stank because she didn’t bathe, but around the middle of September we discovered the truth—a truth that got me thinking more about hygiene. Of course, I didn’t have a problem except from my Mom’s point of view. She was always commenting on my habit of taking three showers a day and washing my hair every morning, saying that every other day would be enough.
It happened one Friday after lunch. The school nurse came to our classroom, spoke conspiratorially with our teacher—each of them casting glances now and then towards Jenna. Ten minutes passed before the nurse left and Mrs. Krule addressed the class.
“Jenna, come up here please.”
Our attention was riveted on what was going to happen to Jenna and nobody said a word. Lloyd, of course, already had his head down and was fast asleep. As Jenna walked to the front of the class, I heard some boy mutter something about a G.I. bath. I knew what that was because my Dad had told me stories about what soldiers did to their comrades who didn’t bathe regularly. The platoon would get together, strip the offender down, and scrub him with steel wool and lye soap. (I had a fleeting vision of the nurse in her office preparing such an experience for Jenna.)
“Jenna, take this note home to your mother and father, and tell them to call me right away.” Jenna took the note with her eyes on the floor.
“Yes, Missus Krule.”
“And you’re excused from school until you can bring me a doctor’s note saying you’re clean.”
Michael poked me in the arm to get my attention and said, “Lice, man. Jenna has cooties.”
I looked over at the sleeping Lloyd and wondered if cooties could make someone’s skin turn gray and make them sleep all the time.
After Jenna went home, Mrs. Krule talked to us about lice and that they had nothing to do with whether or not someone bathed on a regular basis. She also explained to us how Jenna’s parents were poor farmers and that she could only take one hot bath a week because they used well water and were having problems at the moment, which is why she developed such an odor by mid-week. Until that day I took for granted that everyone had unlimited access to hot, running water, and began to feel a little guilty that my parents were able to give me so much. After that day, I cut back to only two showers a day.
It took my friends and me most of September to warm up to Lloyd, mostly because he’d keep to himself on the playground and disappear shortly after school. Even so, we took notice of how little Lloyd had to eat for lunch and wondered if he ever ate dinner. None of the other kids would sit near Lloyd during lunch. The boys just didn’t like him and the girls said his smell ruined their appetites. Michael said Lloyd may be puny but that wasn’t any reason to make him an outcast. Besides, he said, Lloyd don’t smell any worse than Jase on an average day. So one day, Michael, Jase and I sat with Lloyd just to spite the other kids.
Our move surprised Lloyd enough that he sort of began speaking to us. I say it this way because our first conversation with Lloyd consisted of squished-up eyes, a nod here and there, and several grunts we took to mean yes or no depending on the tone and duration.
“Lloyd, dude, mine if we join you?” This from Michael our self-appointed leader. There was a look of surprise on Lloyd’s face.
“Hey, man, I seem to have an extra milk. You want it?” Jase remarked trying to act cool. Lloyd raised his eyebrows and wiped his lips with his tongue.
“Ugh. Tuna salad sandwiches again. Hey, Lloyd, you want part of this…I’m kinda tuna’d out this week,” I remarked as I noticed that for the fifth day in a row Mom had fixed me two tuna salad sandwiches.
Swoop, grasp, and short grunt from Lloyd as he grabbed and devoured the tuna sandwich I held out towards him.
Lloyd never thanked us afterwards, so I figured it wasn’t a word he’d learned as of yet. Michael said it might take a while before Lloyd could store up enough energy to allow him to speak. Jase just kind of stared with a faraway look on his face at Lloyd as he ate. I guess that having gone to bed with an empty stomach on more than one occasion made Jase feel a sort of kinship with Lloyd that Michael and I didn’t understand at the time.
During the afternoon recess while we played a game of kickball, I kicked the ball into the parking lot and saw Lloyd go after it. He brought it back and asked if he could be on my team. I looked down at his tattered sneakers with only half-laces and said, “Sure, but if your shoe comes off while you’re running bases don’t stop to pick it up. Just keep running.”
During the following two weeks, sharing our lunches with Lloyd became a ritual. Slowly, Lloyd began to open up to us and even seemed to be sleeping less in class after lunch. Our actions didn’t go unnoticed by Mrs. Krule, who one day brought a tray of hot food over to our table for Lloyd.
“Young men need a hot meal now and then, Lloyd.”
I saw a tear well up in Lloyd’s eye when Mrs. Krule added, “Tell your mother to come to school tomorrow. I want to speak with her.”
Then she smiled at my friends and me, and without speaking let us know how proud she was of us.
Halloween weekend we invited Lloyd to join us for a sleepover at Michael’s house. Michael’s parents were going to be away the entire weekend, and Jase and I often stayed with him at such times. We thought the experience would be good for Lloyd. Besides, Sammy Terri was having a ‘monsterthon’ on Channel 4 Friday night, and it seemed like a good lead-in for the weekend of mischief.
But first we had one hurdle to clear—Lloyd’s mother.
We’d heard stories about Lloyd’s mom from some of the small-time cowboys at the horse barns. Words like ‘whore,’ ‘slut,’ and ‘pass-around-lay’ brought strange and intriguing images to our prepubescent minds. She was the type of woman who seemed to breed rumors as easily and often as she bred children. (Something of an irony since Lloyd was her only child.) One story, we learned for a fact to be true, centered on the young age at which she’d had Lloyd: a stigma that haunted her into semi-isolation in our town.
She worked the night shift down to the Steer restaurant out on Highway 37 near the edge of town, and rarely went out shopping during the day, which is one reason why none of us had ever seen her. Another reason was that Lloyd never invited us to his home for play or sleepovers. And he never spoke about her during the few times we’d gotten him to hangout with us after school. So, it was a major event when we, in a group, went to Lloyd’s home to ask his mother’s permission for him to spend Halloween weekend with us at Michael’s house.
Lloyd lived with his mom in a run-down hotel, in what we laughingly referred to as ‘downtown.’ In some ways, Noble was like Rome, in that all roads led to downtown. Like most small towns, the town square was comprised of the county courthouse and several stores. Among the businesses on the square were Montgomery’s Department Store, Noble Hardware—owned and operated by Gene Noble whose great grandparents had helped found the town way back during the Civil War—and a smattering of small Mom & Pop stores that sold everything from general auto parts to candy and soda fountain drinks.
Just one block off the square, next to the Artcraft Theater, was the Blake Hotel where Lloyd and his mother lived.
I accompanied Michael and Jase to Lloyd’s home on a Friday after school. Lloyd reluctantly following behind with head bowed. Something seemed to be weighing more heavily on Lloyd’s mind that day than was usual, so my friends and I kept silent knowing that Lloyd would let us into his thoughts when he was ready. However, we all suspected what was troubling Lloyd—he was ashamed of where he lived. Of course, none of us realized how poor Lloyd and his mother truly were.
The march through autumn leaves from Robin Hood Elementary to downtown was somber. We looked like a mini parade of economic representations of the various social strata that made up our small town.
Michael was in the lead wearing expensive penny loafers, designer slacks and dress shirt, and leather jacket imported from Italy; myself, dressed in my Sears & Roebuck Levi jeans, turtleneck shirt and cotton sweater, and new Adidas sneakers; Jase in his faded bell-bottom plaid pants, blue muscle shirt from the local thrift store, a hand-me-down jean jacket used by both his older brother and sister, and worn-out cowboy boots; followed by Lloyd in a faded and stained button-up shirt, faded jeans showing the white threads of wear, and worn out sneakers with broken laces and holes in the soles, wrapped in a jacket best suited for the rag pile than being used as protection from the brisk October weather.
As we approached the hotel, we saw some of the local ‘cools’ sitting on the stoop smoking cigarettes and drinking early beers. None of whom paid us any mind as we filed silently past them up the stairs and through the wooden doors into the main lobby.
I was amazed at the dilapidated condition of the lobby. The floor was covered in a ragged and frayed carpet that at one time must have been considered a true treasure. Upon it was a colorful design of the state flag and capitol building in Indianapolis—bright blues and gold and silver stitching—that had become dull with age and worn grooves where an army of feet had tramped across its surface. A cobwebbed crystal chandelier made of gold-plating and dulled silver, hung from the tall ceiling, its five remaining bulbs casting a dull almost yellow light upon the floor and check-in desk where a bald man in his sixties leaned unconcerned upon the dark wood counter reading a copy of the local newspaper. He glanced up once, squinting at us then waved sadly at Lloyd as we turned to ascend the staircase. After sneezing twice because of the musty dustiness of the place, I followed my friends up three flights of stairs, stepping over refuse, forgotten toys, and at least one dead rat. The squeaky wooden stairs seemed to moan in pain as we ascended, holding onto the rickety banister that threatened to collapse if held too tightly.
The apartment where Lloyd and his mother lived was nothing more than a ten-foot square room with attached kitchenette and a small bedroom. In the living room was a dusty brown little sofa. I saw an old pillow and sheet, neatly folded, lying on one end with a ratty blanket, and figured that must be Lloyd’s bed. The only other pieces of furniture in the room were an old coffee table and a black & white television sitting forlornly on a crate.
As we crowded into the apartment, Lloyd’s mother came out of the bedroom dressed in a tattered night coat, her long blond hair mussed and tangled.
Her soft voice sounded like gravel and dust. A round milky breast popped out of her gown as she shambled to the sofa and plopped down. In her left hand was a brown envelope; her right fist clutched around the long neck of a bottle of Tennessee whisky. She took a long drink before letting the bottle slip to the floor where the liquid pooled around her feet. Falling back into the cushions she motioned Lloyd over.
“Come here, sweetie.”
Lloyd tilted the bottle upright before kneeling next to his mother, and gently closed her gown. She smiled wanly, ran her thin fingers through his hair, and began to cry.
“Mom?” Lloyd began crying, and looked to us for help. Not really knowing what else to do, we gathered around him offering what support we could.
“Go in the bedroom and get your suitcase. I’ve already packed it,” whispered his mother in a tired gravelly voice.
A heavy rapping on the door we’d left open made us turn in surprise. In the doorway stood a short stern looking woman with long brown hair in a business outfit holding a clipboard and brown briefcase. Robert Brown, the County Sheriff stood stoically next to her.
“Miss Johnson?” The stern-looking woman spoke in a commanding, yet gentle, voice. “Hi. My name’s Cloe Goodheart, from Child Care Services. I presume you received my letter?”
Lloyd’s mother lowered her eyes and nodded.
“He’ll just be a minute. I haven’t told him yet.”
“You boys should probably wait outside,” said the sheriff who ushered us out of the apartment.
Outside, Jase sat on the stoop, his eyes locked on the sheriff’s patrol car. I knew he was thinking about his father who was most probably sitting at Poole’s Bar a couple of blocks away talking shop with the happy hour crowd, working on his own weekend drunk. Michael walked down the street, hands in pockets. What he was thinking I could not even guess. I stood alone near the curb, my eyes moving from my friends to the semi-cools.
One of the cools drew a cigarette from the pack with his teeth, rolled the pack into the sleeve of his t-shirt and lit a match. As I watched the tip of the cigarette burn red, gray smoke curling up around his face, two high school girls in poodle skirts strolled past. The cools whistled appreciatively; the girls giggled and flipped their hair, their hips swaying with inviting suggestiveness. I watched the girls disappear around the corner where Michael was standing. One of the Cools made a joke I didn’t hear. A car with two older women, I guessed them to be from the local college, stopped and the Cools got in. As the car sped off, the stern woman came out of the hotel with Lloyd in tow.
He was crying, but didn’t appear to be putting up a fight. Settling Lloyd into the backseat of her car, the woman glanced at me, winked, smiled sadly, and drove away. A minute later, the sheriff came out with Lloyd’s mother. She was dressed, and I saw that she’d been handcuffed. After putting her into the back of his patrol car, the sheriff placed a strong hand on my shoulder.
“You and your friends should probably go on home now. Have your father call me later.”
“Yes sir,” I said, a little confused and feeling more than a little empty inside.
Michael came up to Jase and me, sighed heavily, and said, “Well, guys, guess I’ll see ya later.”
“Yeah,” Jase and I said in unison.
We learned later, from the wanna-be-cowboys out at the horse barns, that Lloyd’s mother had been arrested for prostitution and child neglect, and had been sent to the state prison for a year. Lloyd just disappeared. My parents told me that he’d been sent to the Home for Boys up in Indianapolis.
During dinner the night Lloyd was taken away, I sat in silence with my brother, sister, mother and father, staring at the meatloaf and mashed potatoes on my plate, as my mother said grace. After she said amen, I added silently, “Please watch over Lloyd and his mother.”