Nose for Trouble
The Cosgrove sisters lived next to us in a big sprawling one-story house with a great hall running down the middle of it — the urban version of a dogtrot house. Each lady had her own bedroom, but there was only one bathroom for the entire group. Jeannie, a former schoolteacher, was the oldest, followed by Vidalia, Gussie, Roberta, and Penny. None had ever married; they seemed quite content to dote on the children of relatives living in Modelle.
By the time I was old enough to be aware of them, Jeannie, Vidalia, and Gussie had retired and were living out their days in a splendid simplicity. Roberta and Penny worked in offices downtown. They rode the bus to work every day. Of the five sisters, Roberta was the only one that drove a car, and that was a rare occurrence. She had a phobia about having an automobile accident, so she drove only about fifteen miles an hour around town and never drove at all on the highway. The old car, a Plymouth sedan, was used mostly for going to church and the grocery store and occasionally for paying visits to relatives who lived on the outskirts of town. Doubtless Roberta was responsible for many a swear word from those who got behind her in traffic. (One day the sheriff pulled her over and tried to convince her that driving too slowly was almost as bad as driving too fast, but his words of caution fell on deaf ears.) All the Cosgrove women were short, and when they were out riding around in their old car, they looked like a race of tiny aliens behind that big dashboard and those tall doors. Since the sisters all smoked cigarettes, the car looked like it was on fire when the windows were down and it stopped at a traffic light. They probably relished the car rides, because they wouldn’t allow themselves to smoke in the house; the car was their slow-moving den of iniquity.
The older three women were intolerant of drinking alcohol, so Roberta and Penny had to hide this vice from them. Jeannie once informed my mother that it was simply improper to put whiskey on fruitcakes in order to age and preserve them. Jeannie used orange juice as a preservative — a fact that explains why my parents would never eat any of the fruitcake the Cosgroves gave them for Christmas. My mother’s only comment about their nonalcoholic treat was, “Perfectly good way to ruin fruitcake.” Mother was a teetotaler, too, but concluded that her good Methodist admonitions against drinking didn’t extend to the alcohol in her cake recipes. Around Christmastime my dad usually brought home two bottles of bourbon — one fruitcake-quality and the other drinking-quality. Since Mother didn’t imbibe and didn’t really know the difference, she once poured the drinking whiskey on the cakes and left the other for her husband to drink. The egregiousness of her error was a topic of much dinner conversation thereafter.
Each of the Cosgrove sisters had her own quirks and peculiarities, but Jeannie was at the top of the list as far as I was concerned. As she grew older, I would see her in the front yard collecting pine needles in a basket and taking them into the house. I thought she was making dolls to give to the kids at church or maybe using the pine needles in the fireplace. One day, though, when a young Cosgrove relative and I were playing, we went into Jeannie’s room, and there under her bed were all the pine needles she had collected, divided into little bundles, each one tied tightly with a length of colored string. She had then placed them in several large boxes under her bed. Now, I had seen enough jungle movies at the Roxy Theater to know that when the natives burned you at the stake, they put bundles of straw or kindling under your feet to make sure you cooked quickly. I remember thinking that it was probably a really good thing that Jeannie didn’t smoke in the house, because the fire from under that bed would have been more than enough to turn old Miss Jeannie into barbecue. So far as I know, though, she lived out the remainder of her life without burning herself up.
Vidalia was the ornery one. She’d sit out on her porch every day, weather permitting, to read her paper and her Sunday school lesson. If we were playing ball in our yard and the baseball went over into her yard, she’d give us hell and threaten to call our mother. She was particularly peeved about the pets we used to have at our house, especially the large dogs. One dog in particular, Barney, a Great Dane, was a frequent object of her ire. Barney would occasionally go over into Vidalia’s yard, do his business, and run through the clean clothes that were drying outside on the line, pulling down pairs of underpants drying in the morning sun. We tried to keep him in our yard, but Barney was just being a dog. He could jump the fence into the Cosgroves’ yard with no trouble at all. Vidalia, more than any of the other sisters, was not amused and told us so regularly.
I guess you could say that life was fairly predictable at the Cosgrove house while I was growing up. The sisters were nothing if not dedicated to routine. Every Saturday, they’d all pile in the car and go to the store to do their grocery shopping. Sometimes one of them would even pay us each a dime to help them unload all the groceries back at their house and take the bags inside. Every Sunday they would all go to church, come home, and eat the big dinner one of them had cooked before going to church. And every weekday, the three sisters who were at home would fix a big lunch for Eddy Michaelson, the husband of their cousin Emmy Lou. Eddy worked as an assistant manager at the Modelle Rug & Shade, a dry goods store downtown, just a few blocks from the sisters’ house. They were happy to have some male company every day at lunch. Old man Eddy had a sweet deal and he knew it: a home-cooked meal at noon every weekday, three ladies hanging on his every word, and a chance for a short nap after lunch. I don’t know if he ever took them out to eat; generosity didn’t seem to be his strong suit. My dad referred to him as Eddy Moocherson. Maybe he was just a bit envious of Eddy because he took a sack lunch every day to his job at the railroad.
It was when the daily routine was broken that things often got complicated at the Cosgrove house. One incident in particular set the neighbors to talking. It was on a Tuesday, and Roberta and Penny were at work. The three older sisters were supposed to be picked up by a friend to go to a circle meeting at church. Vidalia decided she wasn’t feeling well enough to go that day and told Gussie and Jeannie to go on and have a good time. She told them she would wash a couple of loads of clothes and hang them out on the line to dry. Gussie and Jeannie left Vidalia there to her own devices.
After the clothes were washed, she took them outside, hung them out, and went back into the house to read for a while. When she got back in, she discovered that she had left a couple of things in the washer and went back out to hang them on the line too. When she went out the door, she heard the door shut and lock. She searched around in her apron pockets for the key, but it wasn’t there. Vidalia was locked out.
She walked to our house, but no one was home. My father was at work, Mother was shopping, and I was at school. She walked over to her other neighbor’s house, but again to no avail; nobody was home. So instead of simply waiting on the front porch for Gussie and Jeannie to come home from church, she decided to face the problem head-on; she would go in through a window.
Vidalia walked around the back of her house, found a large flower pot, and put it below the bathroom window. Luckily, the window was not too high off the ground and was not locked; she had seen one of her cousin’s children climb through it once before. She was able to remove the screen and raise the window about a foot. She stepped up on the flower pot and proceeded to try to go through the window headfirst.
Now, Vidalia might have been petite as a young girl, but years of eating Gussie’s fried chicken, roast beef and gravy, butterbeans, and creamed corn, not to mention Jeannie’s caramel cake and lemon pie, had taken their toll on her figure. The term used for her in the ladies department would be full-figured and then some. When she got into that bathroom window about halfway, she got stuck. She couldn’t go in; she couldn’t back out. This must have been quite a sight to behold: a billowing skirt, a petticoat or two, and two rather large legs all poking out of the bathroom window. Vidalia called for help to anyone who could hear, but no one was in the house and no one was home in the houses on either side. No one could hear her increasingly agitated cries for help — no one except for Barney.
Barney had been asleep on the back steps of our house when the commotion woke him. He lumbered over into the Cosgroves’ yard to investigate the noise. The sight of all that rustling fabric with two legs thrashing about puzzled him greatly. Legs, he thought, were supposed to have people on the other end of them, and he couldn’t see any people.
So Barney did what any self-respecting dog would do: He started to sniff around. He sniffed around the flowerbed. He sniffed Vidalia’s shoes. He sniffed the flower pot she had been standing on. He was such a big dog that he could have easily jumped through the bathroom window himself. Next thing you know, Barney stood up on his hind legs and put his cold, wet nose right between Vidalia’s legs not once, not twice, but three or four times. The only reason Barney stopped was because of the kicking and screaming Vidalia did before she fainted.
Gussie and Jeannie returned from the circle meeting, they had to call
the fire department to get Vidalia out of the window. It took two men
on the inside and two men on the outside to free her after removing
part of the window frame. She wasn’t really hurt, but her
dignity had suffered a tremendous blow. The firemen had to work
really hard to keep from letting the humor of the situation get the
best of them. The sisters finally got Vidalia to bed, where she was
able to get some rest that afternoon. Dr. Fortenberry called in a
prescription for some pills to calm her nerves. Needless to say, Eddy
didn’t get his free lunch that day at the
house. The next day, Vidalia called my father and gave him a piece of
her mind about Barney and what he had done; she even demanded that my
father punish the dog for unseemly behavior. She told him that if she
ever found that dog in her yard again, she’d call the city
pound and have Barney taken away. My dad punished the dog by getting
him a package of his favorite dog biscuits. He also gave Barney a new
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