Miss Kelly made her way down the path to her garden, a gray stump in a loose flannel housedress and a white headscarf that kept catching the wind. The scarf raised its rear fold on the back of her head, flashing white like a deer running for cover. But Miss Kelly wasn’t running. Not even close. She shuffled along in muddy boots, gnarled cane in hand, ancient metal-framed sunglasses staring directly at me. She was coming to check my progress on weeding her beets.
“Don’t bother with the grass, boy, just get the dandies and the ragweed and God will take care of the rest.” She said this as she encountered the first of my weed piles, but it was too late. I was nearly done, and in order to avoid having to do a wood chore I’d been as circumspect as possible in my weeding, removing anything green that was not a beet, and spending the entire morning on the one task. The rows were nearly perfect now. I stood up, brushing dirt from my knees and she chuckled as she scraped up to me, shaking her head.
“You are what we called ‘persnickety‘ in my day, boy. That is probably the best weed job I ever saw. Too good for those beets! Come get some lemonade before you embarrass the rest of my garden.” I sighed in relief. So far, no wood chore! I hated stacking wood more than anything.
Inside, she sat me down with some lemonade next to a stack of old newspaper on her kitchen table then hunched into her pantry. The counters of that little room were lined with broken pottery, Christ figurines, and a pile of plates. She returned with more plates and a headless Jesus, placing them on the newspapers.
“I hope you got steady hands, boy. I need someone to glue all these things back together. Can ya handle that?”
I nodded. She plugged in her eight-track player, which began blaring big band music, and scrounged around in a drawer for a minute finally handing me three tubes of Super Glue.
“I bought this off the TV. Start with the plates. They’ll be good practice before you fix Our Lord.” She laughed at her own remark, then went into a long spasm of coughs, holding a crisp, white hanky to her mouth while she pointed to what appeared to be a large pinecone made of pure gold.
“This goes to that old clock in the hall. Once you get some practice, you can glue this weight back on to the pulls. In the meantime, don’t glue yourself to anything,” she said through her hacks, then left me. I rolled Christ’s head around in my fingers, watching her make her way down the central hallway. She disappeared into her bedroom.
The plates were ugly, but looked pretty simple to fix. This would be far more enjoyable than working in the humid backyard. I began humming along to the eight-track playing “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and happily set to work.
Technically, I was not supposed to be enjoying myself. My parents were punishing me for snickering at Miss Kelly when she dropped her Communion bread into the wine at church. She was very old — the oldest person I had ever met as far as I could tell — and her shaky hands were always fun to watch as she tried to dip her piece of bread into the wine-filled pewter cup. But she was also considered a saint by my church.
She was extremely into God, hitting multiple church services per week and several in a row on Sunday. The pastor himself drove her to his second church so she could worship again after leaving ours. My parents were not at all pleased to discover that I regarded a gaffe in the holy ritual of Communion to be a source of entertainment, and I was unceremoniously dropped off at her house to do chores and apologize.
I had not apologized yet, however. Miss Kelly knew I was being punished and had persisted in asking me why all morning. “It’s a sad thing when your life becomes punishment for others.” She had announced this solemnly with eyes cast towards the ceiling, beseeching. I responded vaguely to her inquiries.
Working for Miss Kelly had turned out to be much nicer than doing chores at home. Her house was airy and cool, she kept me constantly loaded up on snacks and fresh lemonade, her tasks were a breeze, and she played Glen Miller on an eight-track machine all day long. It was better than stacking wood in the sun for Dad (no music allowed, no snacks until you’re done). I did not want to offend her.
I realized I would need more chores to do at some point, but Miss Kelly did not emerge from her room. After two hours and hearing Glenn Miller do the songs of the World War II three different times, I had managed to finish piecing back together every single one of her broken items on the pantry counters. So I went through the kitchen, searching for broken objects and using the miraculous Super Glue on anything I could find. Soon her table was lined neatly with a little army of Christian statues, half a dozen plates, a sugar bowl and a planter.
There had to be more. She is old and clumsy and probably has tons of broken stuff, I thought. And I’d had more than enough practice to glue the old clock in the hall. No better time than the present! I picked up the golden pinecone and a tube of superglue and headed to the front of the house.
Photo by Flickr user Daniel X. O’NeilThe clock stood like a 6-foot-tall sentry in her front hallway. It was an ornate mahogany grandfather clock, so elaborate and complicated that it even had a secondary face that tracked the moon’s comings and goings. To me it looked like it must have belonged to a king in its earlier life and was impossibly old — far older than Miss Kelly. I looked through its front window and saw the other large brass pinecone weights and a shimmering waterfall of golden pull chains from which they hung.
It didn’t look hard to fix, so I opened the door, slathered a large helping of glue onto the errant pinecone and crouched down to hold it tightly to the plate at the end of the chain. I looked at my Casio calculator watch to time the drying for five minutes and hummed along to the fourth playing of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” wafting back from the kitchen. I sighed, wishing she liked cooler music and decided I should go on a hunt for things to glue in another part of the house after I finished the clock.
But I was not going to get away that easily this time. Five minutes passed and, as Glen Miller started a new song, I tried to let go of the pinecone. But it didn’t let go of me. Three of my fingers were firmly glued in place. Oh no. Not good. I wanted to cry out for help, even felt like crying for Mom. But Mom was miles away and I was too proud to reveal my mistake to Miss Kelly, so I pulled the winding end of the chain to bring the pinecone to a comfortable height and stood up.
I tried prying myself off slowly but there was a sharp pain in my fingers and I stopped in a panic. I looked around the hallway, one hand thrust inside the massive clock and wiping sweat from my brow with my free hand, hoping to see something that might help my situation. There was nothing. The closest object was a little table with a lace doily on it and a white ceramic bowl, but even that was out of my reach. Otherwise, there was only a braided throw rug and a bunch of people glowering down at me from their photographs on the wall.
I started sweating and felt my chin start to pull into a possible sob. This was going to hurt. A lot. This was far worse than taking off a Band-Aid. This was going to be like putting my tongue on frozen metal and having to rip it off before the end of recess. Tears welled in anticipation and I took a deep breath.
Even my scream did not wake the slumbering Miss Kelly, and I quietly thanked the universe that I had not been found out. The only evidence of my mistake was three small strips of skin on the back of the brass pinecone, plus the three Band-Aids that had now gone missing from Miss Kelly’s bathroom. I hadn’t even cried. I was proud of that. I rewarded myself with lemonade and decided I should simply continue my search for broken objects in the house as far away from Glen Miller as I could get.
I crept around the innards of her home, feeling like I was in an old funeral parlor. Each room was sparsely decorated with uncomfortable-looking but regal furniture and a carpet with trails worn into it from decades of scuffing feet. Dozens of little statues of various dogs, Christ figures, and angels sat on every available table surface. I picked up a needlepoint pillow of a sailor to look at it. It was faded and dusty smelling, with the number 1944 sewn into the corner. Had she really been around that long? I did the math and realized she had only been around Mom’s age when she sewed it. She was ancient! I kept moving.
Pictures of Jesus hung on the walls, interspersed with black and white photos of stern people staring back from the olden days. Everything was given a dusky yellow hue by the gold-colored gauzy curtains that hung over the windows. Her house was definitely not decorated to my tastes, but nothing was broken. Apparently she was not as clumsy as she seemed at Communion.
I decided to check upstairs but on my way I noticed the big old clock had begun ticking. The affixed pinecone hung alone at the top of the its chain, its companions still at the end of their ropes, but its weight had been enough to get the clock going and the pendulum swung solemnly back and forth with a stately baritone tick-tock.
I decided it would be nice to have the clock running and, although I had no idea how to fix the moon’s cycle, I certainly could wind the old thing up and put the hands in their proper place. So I pulled all the other chains, then wound the hands backward to the time indicated on my Casio. There. Perfect. I headed upstairs.
Miss Kelly was no longer using her top floor, too frail and weak to climb the stairs and afraid of falling when no one else was around, and she was probably unaware of the growing hoard she had up there. I gasped when I got to the top stair. Other people had been storing her extra things there to keep them out of the way, and the hallway was lined with all kinds of cool stuff sitting on squares of newspaper.
Mostly they seemed to be items she didn’t use anymore: An air conditioner, a grow lamp, a couple DustBusters. But there were also dozens of broken items lying around. She really was clumsy! This was excellent news. My heart started to pound — there had to be at least 20 fixable items on the floor and beds. I would be able to glue to my heart’s content that afternoon. I grabbed a lamp, a pot, a statue of Mary, and what appeared to be a broken wooden clog, and carried them all to the kitchen.
I swung by the clock again to survey my excellent deed, but frowned when I noticed that the hands had were showing 6:30 — my Casio said it was only 3:02. I put my broken hoard down and opened the clock up to fix the hands again, but when I replaced them they just swung freely back down on their own to the 6:30 position. Apparently I had broken them when I wound them backwards. Glue would not save me this time.
I tried pulling on the pinecones to see if I could get the clock to stop ticking, but succeeded only in getting it to bong out the Westminister Chimes. Luckily, this also did not wake Miss Kelly, so I opted to leave the broken clock alone before I caused more damage. It would be smarter to go back to fixing what I could with glue.
By the end of the day, I had fixed nearly everything that was glue-able. In my frantic quest to make up for widdershinning the grandfather clock, I had covered Miss Kelly’s kitchen table in legions of ceramic creatures both great and small, a stack of pottery, plates and two lamps. It had been a massive undertaking, and I had used all six tubes of her Super Glue. I admired my work until I heard the familiar sound of our station wagon chug into the driveway. Minutes later Mom rang the doorbell to retrieve me, and finally Miss Kelly emerged from her bedroom. She was rumpled and sleepy with her hair out of its characteristic bundle, cascading in a gray sheet that fell halfway down her body.
“Bye, Miss Kelly! I fixed all your stuff!” I yelled to her and waved. The clock bonged again. The abbreviated tune indicated it was quarter-to-something in its head, although it was actually 5:00 and it still showed 6:30. Miss Kelly waved back half-heartedly, a groggy and confused look on her face.
“Did you apologize to her?” Mom asked me. “What did you do to your fingers?”
“Umm, sorry! … again!” I yelled to Miss Kelly, and hustled out the door past Mom’s pursed lips.
I looked forward to returning to her house that week, but Miss Kelly took ill and began attending the church closest to her home, skipping ours. Due to her illness, my punishment was transferred to our house and directed at a large woodpile that needed stacking. I was disappointed I would not be going back, but since there wasn’t anything left to glue I figured I’d probably have to stack wood for her anyway. Same difference, I rationalized. However, I was pleased to be congratulated by my parents who told me she had been happy with my work.
“Apparently it took her daughter a week to put away all the things you fixed, son!” Dad seemed quite surprised I had done a good job at something. Maybe if they let me fix the important things around OUR house, they’d be happy with me too, I thought. But that was a different battle we would have at another time. In the meantime I chose to bask in the glow of praise, although I did not look forward to a tedious wood chore with no music. Maybe I would smash something in the house and offer to fix it no charge. I wondered if my parents had even heard of Super Glue.
It was not for another year before I heard about Miss Kelly again. Our pastor announced to the congregation that she had passed away in her sleep earlier that week, and he proceeded to do an extra-long service, coaching his grief-stricken flock through the potential joys of fond remembrance. I sat through it, a bit sad for her and hushed by the crying adults around me. But I had nothing to add to the proceedings. Like all church services, it seemed only to drag on well past making its initial point. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, thinking more about Pac-Man than wondering whether her beets had been any good or whether nice old ladies went to heaven. It seemed obvious that if anyone went to heaven, it would be her. If she didn’t, the rest of us are screwed.
The pastor approached me after the impromptu funeral, finding me leaning against our car picking my nose while my parents chatted with church people in the entryway. He beckoned me to his office.
“Did you know Miss Kelly well?” he asked point-blank when I had sat down.
“Not really. Just from church.”
“Well you must have known her better than most — she left you this.” He handed me a small cardboard box and I opened it. There was no letter, no explanation, just tissue paper and a hard object inside. I ripped the paper away, perplexed until I saw what lay underneath.
It was old and not nearly as nice as my Casio, but it was ticking and showed the right time.