Wilmore lived in a house on Wabash surrounded by a bunch of cousins, the closest being his cousin Lucy in a big white house he could reach by crawling through a stand of bamboo and scooting across an empty lot to the bottom of Maywood. On days when the bamboo was drenched with rain he rode his bicycle around the wide double ‘U’ of streets shaping the neighborhood, dropping his bike in the gravel drive to avoid Aunt Tilly’s shouts about bicycles tearing up the grass of her front yard.
Whether by street or bamboo shortcut he always found Aunt Tilly digging in her flowerbeds on mud-smeared knees. Today Lovie’s face was poking through the neatly trimmed azalea bushes separating her house from Aunt Tilly’s, calling out about Aunt Tilly needing a perm and finding white fly on the poinsettia.
“Can Lucy come out ’n play, Aunt Tilly?” Wilmore spoke between Lovie’s questions.
Raising her face from the dark brown earth and revealing cheeks as dirt-stained as her knees, she hollered, “Mornin’ Wilmore. She’s in the backyard up in the fig tree last time I looked. Y’all go on inside and have some of that upside down cake in the icebox, but don’t track crumbs all over the house…Lovie, what time you gonna do my perm? Do I have time to get these bulbs in?”
Eager to join Lucy up in the fig tree heavy with fat purple fruit ready for eating, Wilmore raced around the house. At the back corner he did a quick dodge to miss Pretty, Aunt Tilly’s bug-eyed chihuahua perched on the walkway guarding some puppies wrestling inside an old tire a few feet away on the grass. She let off a single high-pitched bark at Wilmore, worried he might disturb the playing pups. But Wilmore had no eye for dogs, thoughts more on joining his cousin half hidden behind a spread of fig leaves up in the tree.
Comfortably settled into a fork of limbs a few feet below Lucy, Wilmore stuffed a fig in his mouth and started to ask her something about the neighbor, Miss Juju who was only three feet tall but had a son already six feet. Bobby, delivered newspapers on his bicycle but with most kids around the neighborhood, it was Bobby’s tiny mamma who got the most attention, though it was mostly a matter of staring. Lucy ignored Wilmore’s question, saying instead, “Daddy said he’s about to fire Leroy cause he came to work yesterday on a old motorcycle, and when he put on his hamburger uniform Daddy could see a tattoo poking out from under his sleeve. Daddy said people coming to eat at a restaurant don’t like to have trashy people with tattoos bringin’ food to the table.”
Aunt Tilly had taken Lucy and Wilmore to the family’s Burger Chef franchise enough to make Leroy a familiar name, but apart from that they knew nothing about the man and his job at the restaurant. Lucy was only repeating a conversation overheard between her mother and father and couldn’t know more than she had already reported. She switched gears in a single breath and asked Wilmore if he had seen Pretty’s three babies.
Pushing a leaf out of his face Wilmore caught a spear of sunlight angled down, spotlighting the old tire and the three puppies, the largest of the three tugging on the ear of another. He wondered when they were born. “I saw ’em in the tire but she barked at me.”
“Oh, that dudn’t mean anything. She’ll let you pick ’em up and hold ’em,” Lucy assured him.
“What’s LC doing over yonder by the pecan tree?”
“Mamma found a million caterpillars up in that tree yesterday and tol’ LC to get ’em outta there any way he could without killing the tree.” Lucy spoke with all the confidence of an experienced yardman.
“Let’s go see the caterpillars!”
Not more than two hops from fig tree to ground, Lucy forgot about caterpillars and shouted to Wilmore, “Come on! Let’s go inside. I want a drink a water,” skipping past the now sleeping chihuahua puppies toward the backdoor of the house.
Opening the door of the refrigerator Lucy took out a stick of margarine, peeled back the paper wrapping and bit off a mouthful. “You want some?” she blithely asked, holding the halved stick out to Wilmore.
“No, but lemme have a piece a that cake there. Nobody but you likes to eat butter, crazy.”
Lucy slid the plate of cake out warning Wilmore not to get the crumbs on the floor. Satisfied with the bite of margarine and a glass of water, Lucy told Wilmore to hurry up with his cake so they could go and play with Pretty’s puppies.
Outside they decided to build a house for the puppies and pulled up several of the concrete stepping-stones running around the house from front to back door. The stepping-stones, almost two inches thick and twelve inches square were heavy but manageable for the two children working together. As they wrestled the stones up and into a walled shape, the mother chihuahua stood off to the side looking on with antsy confusion. With two hands each on the last piece of their chihuahua house, they lifted it into place across the four wall stones.
Satisfied that all was in order, Lucy and Wilmore removed the roof stone and set it aside. “Let’s put little sister in first,” Lucy said, reaching around to pick up the female puppy still inside the old tire. At the edge of the worn rubber circle, hardly able to see over the top with her bulging eyes, Pretty pumped her legs in a nervous jig, crooning to the puppies inside. With hands gently enfolding the chosen pup, the two cousins placed it inside the four stone walls, and then with slow and careful movements lowered the roof stone into place.
Despite the agitation of the mother and faint cries from inside the walls, Wilmore and Lucy sat back admiring the ingenuity of their doghouse. From across the yard Wilmore could hear the odd crackling pops of LC pushing a gasoline-soaked torch up into the limbs of the pecan tree burning out the caterpillars. He turned around to look but in that moment the doghouse gave a sudden lurch and collapsed into a flattened stack. For several seconds there was nothing but the sound of popping caterpillars and Pretty’s frantic whimpers.
“Mamma! Mamma!” Lucy screamed as she dashed for the front yard, her screams lifting her mother almost magically from the flowerbeds. Before she had gotten past the dining room windows she collided with her mother in a panic of tears. “Mamma, the house fell down! The little baby…Mamma, I’m sorry! I didn’t know, I didn’t know…” words tumbling out in a flood of tears.
Aunt Tilly walked in aimless circles holding the crushed puppy in her hands, tears washing the soil stains from her face. Pretty danced an uncertain jitter around her master’s feet and LC watched from beneath the infested pecan tree. From the backdoor steps, the cousins, bonded anew by blood and deed sat pondering their innocent folly.