I had just begun to separate Special’s supplies into piles when I heard her walking around the bridge abutment with her wagon.
“I think the whole world knows we’re out here now,” I said.
She grinned and parked her wagon on the BLESS THIS HOUSE rug. Two muddy tires cut across the B and L in BLESS.
“I tried to be quiet,” she said. “But the bowl kept moving around.”
“You did good, Special. I was just being a tease.” I examined her wagon. “You think we need all of that flour?”
“I brought the whole bag in case.”
“I don’t know how to do this, how to make the paper mushies.”
“I will teach you!”
There was excitement in her eyes. I think she was looking forward to being in charge.
I helped her unload the wagon and we got started on setting up our work stations. I was in charge of ripping the newspapers into strips and setting them into piles. Special was in charge of making the papier-mâché paste. She explained to me the ratio of water and flour needed to make the glue-like covering that held the paper mushies together. It was an incredibly messy job. Her hands began to get covered in flour, and once the water started to splash around, the flour stuck to her skin and clothes. There were bowls set in a semi-circle around her full of that mushy paste. As repetitive as my job was, I was glad to be doing it rather than hers.
“You’re doing a very good job of teaching this old man something new,” I said.
“Maybe one day you can be a teacher like Mrs. Woodfork.”
“I never really thought about that, but maybe!” She stirred the flour and water with a wooden spoon. “What do we do if someone sees us out here? It looks like we’re making drugs or something.”
Oh, I laughed hard after that one. I replied: “It looks like no such thing. If anything, people will think we’re making cookies. I don’t think we’ll see any people though. Who comes over here anyway?”
“How long does it usually take to make the paper mushies?”
“It depends. We can go fast. I don’t want to be out here too long. I don’t want mama to know.”
We talked about this and that while we worked. Special told me about her struggles in math. I promised that I’d help her when all of this was over. I had tutored Special before. I was a solid B student all throughout high school. Never did the whole college thing, but back then it wasn’t needed as much as it is today.
Special kept asking me questions about the kinds of people I interacted with on the street. She wanted to know all sorts, good and bad. I told her that it would take me years to get through every person that I’ve ever met, but I entertained her curiosity with one story that I found particularly amusing.
“A couple of years ago I was in Grixdale—”
“Oh, Grixdale!” she said. “I love the ice-cream at the Twist-T-Cup!”
“I’ve never had the ice-cream from there.”
“What? Oh, no no no!”
My story had just been derailed by the dreaded I-C-E cream word that so many parents ban from their vocabulary in order to keep peace around the house.
“They have the best chocolate fudge,” she said. At this point, she stood up and began moving the tongue depressors into piles of four. “Fudgaholic I think it’s called.”
“I’ll need to try it.”
“Maybe mama can take us in the summer.”
“Sorry, I interrupted your story. You were saying you were in Grixdale …”
“Yes. Yes. Grixdale. There’s a corner there I like because it has a bus stop as well as a barbershop. A lot of foot traffic coming by there, which means people to talk to. Sometimes, I’m not really into the whole begging thing. Sometimes, I just like to talk. Anyway, I was out on the corner, and up comes this man holding on to a bunch of balloons. There had to have been at least thirty, and not just the oval-shaped kinds. Some were the big ones with text on the sides.”
“Like happy birthday?”
“Yes. Exactly like that. I think he did tell me they were for someone’s birthday party. So we get to talking, because I ain’t never seen someone just walking by carrying a bunch of balloons. That person deserves to have his story heard, am I right?”
Special brushed by me, looking for something. She was still listening, but doing two things at once.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“The paper fasteners.”
“Oh, you ended up finding some?”
“Yes! Much better than using glue.”
She found them in her bag and began turning the tongue depressors into the skeletons for the stick people. She was going rather fast, so every now and then the arms would get tilted more one way, or one of the legs ended up shorter than the other. I don’t think it mattered too much because we were going to cover them with newspapers.
“So what happened to the guy with the balloons?” she asked.
“Just getting to it. Need any help?”
“Nope. Keep ripping the newspaper. We need a lot of it.”
“Ok.” I made sure to focus on my hands while I talked, as not to rip the newspaper poorly. “So I’m talking with the ballon man—Jeff I think his name was—and out of nowhere, I hear this loud pop. We both look up and one of the balloons is crinkled up like a wet napkin. A few pieces are near my shoes. Happens sometimes, he says, and I nod. He didn’t seem to pay much attention to it. Well, it happened again, only it was two pops this time. Pop! Pop!”
Special jumped when I said the second pop. I decided to dial it down a little. There was no need in scaring the girl; this was supposed to be an amusing story.
“‘What the heck,’ the guy says, and starts looking around. Pop! Another one goes. This time it’s one of the big ones. I back away from him, thinking all hell is about to break loose with these balloons. They’re quite loud when they pop like that. It was starting to freak me out. He has both hands on the strings now, pulling all of the balloons closer to him. P-p-p-pop! Four of them go just like that.”
“Yeah. And now Jeff is just fuming. He’s not going to have any balloons left if he doesn’t figure out what’s going on. He starts looking every which way—up, down, you name it. Another one goes, but this time, we hear something else afterward. Laughing.”
“Yes, laughing. From the side of the barbershop. Come to find out, two kids are over there shooting out the balloons with rocks from a slingshot.”
“Nuh-uh! That’s mean!”
“Yep. I haven’t got to the end, though. So now that Jeff knows these two punks are shooting out his balloons, his face begins to get all red. I mean, he’s absolutely steaming at this point. I try to tell him to calm down, but another balloon gets shot. That was the last straw for him. Oh boy, he stomps his feet and runs over to the two kids, cussing up a storm. People are looking at him like he’s some lunatic. He balls up his fists and starts shaking them, really going for it, shouting, ‘You do that one more time and I’m going to find your parents and make you deliver these balloons yourself!’ They just kept on chuckling. ‘You think this is funny?’ They nod. ’Why I outta—’ At this point, he realizes why they haven’t stopped laughing. High above, fifteen balloons are sailing into the heavens. He had gotten so mad that when he shook his fists he forgot he was holding onto the balloons. Now, they were floating away and there was nothing he could do to stop them.”
“Oh no! Did he get them back?”
“They were history. He walked away gritting his teeth. I think he was madder at himself than anything. But when I looked over at those two kids and saw the grins on their faces, well, I started to laugh along with them.”
“That was a funny story. Sad, too. That birthday party didn’t have any balloons.”
“I tend to think the man went back to the store and got some more.” I tore the last newspaper into strips and set them on top of a mound that was beginning to pile up. “Newspapers are ready.”
“Great! I’m just fastening all of the arms and legs together. It was kind of hard to punch the fastener through the wood, but I got the hang of it after a while. Are you ready for the messy part?”
“Messy part? Haven’t you already done that?”
“Nope. That was nothing.”
She explained to me the process of soaking the newspapers into the papier-mâché paste and wrapping them around the tongue depressors. She made sure to doubly explain how to make the heads.
“It sort of ends up like a ball,” she said. “But sometimes the newspaper gets smushed and it comes out as a square.”
“We can call those ones blockheads.”
“I like that!”
“How many strips per paper mushy?”
“How many strips do you think we have?”
I looked down at the avalanche of newspaper strips around me. “Too many to count.”
“Let’s do five per paper mushy and then see where we’re at.”
We made a miniature assembling line. I was in charge of soaking the strips while Special was in charge of adhering them to the tongue depressors. About halfway through she made me switch so I could try my hand at making the paper mushies. My first few turned out terribly. The wet strips hung off the depressors like an oversized shirt. Sometimes, I would wrap them too tight and the newspaper would tear in half.
“How do you get these things to go where you want them to?” I said. “My hands are too slippery.”
“Hold the stick people in your hands. It’s too hard to wrap the newspaper around them while they’re on the ground.”
“Ok, I’ll try that.”
“Just keep working at it! I know you can do it.”
I embraced her positive energy and got into a good rhythm. I even managed to make their heads round. No blockheads for me! I don’t know how long it took us to make the paper mushies, but when I wrapped the last piece of wet newspaper around a leg, both of my hands were cramping up.
“Is there any water left in the pitcher?” I asked.
Special picked up the pitcher, swishing around maybe two cup’s worth.
“That’ll do,” I said.
“What do we need it for?”
“Washing our hands.”
“Oh! Good thinking.”
Special poured some water over my hands. I rubbed them together, trying to get as much of the papier-mâché paste off as I could.
I borrowed the pitcher from Special and dumped the remaining amount of water over her hands. “Make sure to wash your hands with soap when you get home,” I said.
She wiped her semi-clean hands all over her pants to dry them. I laughed, because I used to do that very thing when I was little. My mother used to scold me, and my father, well, let’s just say that yardsticks weren’t only used for measuring.
We discussed our plans for the next day. After school, Special was going to help me paint the paper mushies and add eyes, hair, and all the other important things to make them human. I needed to spend the night out here, which I had already planned on. The last thing we needed was for some wanderer to stumble upon the countless bodies of stick people and think there was some kind of ritualistic cult blossoming in Morrow Square. I didn’t think anyone would show up, but better safe than sorry.
“How many did we make, Special?” I asked. “Did you count them?”
“Not yet.” She scurried over to the other side of the bridge abutment and began counting. “One … two … three …” She went faster, the excitement brewing. “14 … 15 … 16 …” Her eyes were bright, like two small flashlights beaming down. “35 … 36 … 37 …” A smile was forming, wide and marvelous. “66 … 67 …68 … 69 … 70 … 71 … 72.” She paused, then looked at me. “72.”
“72! Wow, it’s so many!”
We said goodnight to each other. I watched Special leave with her rickety wagon and sat down on the BLESS THIS HOUSE rug amidst the paper mushies. I picked one up and examined it. It was so simple, just some wood and paper that was bereft of life, and yet, once it was painted and cast into the barrel it would change. Life would take hold of it. It would move, walk, and crawl. It would scuttle across the field, marching on. Most importantly, it would listen to Special. It would do anything she would say, anything she needed.
I watched the cars and trucks race by, leaving red and white trails of light. A great peace came upon me. I had done good that night, better than I had been doing for many years. It wasn’t enough to make up for the mistakes, the bad times, or the regrets, but it was something to hold on to when those dark thoughts tried to get to me again. It’s amazing how quickly peace can turn to war sometimes.