from Songs of Gentle Sadness
by Buie Seawell
She was older than we three – Frank and Boyd and me. Adele lived on a street behind my grandmother’s big house on Elm Street. Maybe it was Water Street. Anyway, she would come over to Gran’s backyard to see what us boys were up to. I think she liked us, not because we were boys, but because she was older and could boss us around. We liked her because she was older and probably because she was a girl. Adele was 10 and pretty in a quirky kind of way in her pedal pushers, sneaks and T-shirt.
Adele’s favorite thing was clubs. Secret clubs. Clubs with secret rules and obligations and signs and handshakes and such. She was really good at writing all that club stuff up and explaining it to us. We’d sit on the cement bench in my grandmother’s garden, next to the goldfish lily pool and Adele, blond pigtails bobbing as she talked, would catechize us in rich detail about what was and wasn’t allowed in, say, the Secret Order of Lumbee Pirates.
Boyd liked to ask questions. Adele hated questions. Boyd was just seven, and kept asking questions anyway.
“What’s a cutlass?”
“A sword, Stupid!” Adele was not good at patience.
“Oh,” says Boyd, “where are we going to get a cutlass?”
“We’ll make them.”
“I don’t know how,” Boyd whined.
“I’ll show you later.”
Then Frank said, “I need to pee.”
“Oh for crumb’s sake,” said Adele, “you idiots will never be pirates.”
“Don’t pirates pee?” asked Frank.
“Of course, pirates pee,” said Adele, “Just not when they are having a confab on pirate rules.”
“I really gotta pee,” said Frank.
“Hold it!” ordered Adele, “Now there are five rules all pirates must obey at all times, and I’m writing them down on this piece of cardboard. First, no peeing at meetings.”
“I really, really gotta pee,” pipes up Frank.
“Second,” intones Adele, “No questions during meetings. And third, we call the pirate leader Captain.”
“Captain, I really, really, really gotta pee,” pleads Frank.
“After the meeting.”
“Fourth,” says Adele looking at me, “refreshments will be served at all pirate meetings. And fifth . . .” But she never finishes her thought. Frank jumped up and pushed Adele with both hands, and Adele, stumbling backward, plops into the lily pool.
Frank is crying and his short kaki pants are wet in front. Adele just sits there in the pool with the goldfish. Stunned. Maybe rule five had to do with mutiny?
It was quite a while that summer before Adele came back to Gran’s house. But one day she showed up. Stuart had joined me, Frank and Boyd, and we were playing with our toy cars on a ramp we’d made with boards on the back steps. The game was our version of a wood block derby, except we didn’t carve the cars or anything. The cars came from Rose’s Five and Dime on Elm street, downtown. It said, “Made in Japan” on a little sticker on the bottom of the car.
Adele watched us for a while. Frank watched Adele and maneuvered as far as possible from her, up behind me. Then, like the lily pool incident never happened, Adele says, “Let’s start an automobile club.”
We four were having fun playing, but we sit down on the steps anyway, and Adele begins drawing up some rules for the Automobile Club of Robeson County. “First,” says Adele, “Refreshments will be served at all meetings.” So I head into the house and return with Gran, who has made sweet iced tea in tall Dixie Cups with lemon slices and mint. It’s hot, and Rule One is a good one. The boys say, “Thank you Mizz Poole.” Adele doesn’t even look at my grandmother, just continues with the rules.
“Second, all cars will be kept in the clubhouse when not being used.”
“What’s a clubhouse?” asks Boyd.
“It’s where we have our meetings and keep our stuff,” says Adele.
“Where’s that?” asks Boyd.
“We’ll build one,” answers Adele.
“Rule three, nobody can be late for meetings.”
“When are meetings?” we all ask at once.
“When I say so,” says Adele.
“Rule four, the secret knock will be two whacks, followed by a pause, and then three more whacks.”
“What’s a whack?” asks Boyd.
“Jeminizes! You guys are stupid!” says Adele, “Like what you do with your whacker, idiot.
We four boys are not sure what this means, but we try not to look stupid.
Finally, I say, “I think building a club house will be fun!” “What can we build it out of?”
“I have a plan,” says Adele.
Adele leading the way, we go behind the houses on North Elm street – past the goat pen, past Unk’s shop, behind Madge and Judith’s house — to a large store house kind of building that is behind the fourth house down from Gran and Papa’s house. It’s like a big garage, except it’s all shut up. A sign on the side of the building says, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”
“What’s a trespasser?” says Boyd.
“What’s prosecuted?” asks Stuart.
Frank says, “I gotta pee.”
“Never mind,” says Adele.
On the front of the building is another sign. It reads, “Biggs Funeral Home.”
“Are there dead people in there?” asks Boyd.
“No, silly, just boxes and boxes. We can use one or two to build our clubhouse. They’re really big,” says Adele.
“I’m going home,” says Frank.
Stuart and Boyd are looking in the one window on the side of the storage shed. They can’t see much. The window panes are dark with dust and spider webs on the inside. “It looks scary,” says Stuart.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” says Adele, “I’ve been over here when they unload trucks with boxes.” (Her house was just behind the house with the big storage shed.) “They’ll never miss a couple of boxes.”
“What’s in those boxes?” says Boyd.
“Just caskets,” says Adele.
“I need to pee too,” says Boyd.
Adele goes around to the back of the shed and tries to open the big door to get inside. It’s pad locked. She returns to the window where Boyd and Stuart were trying to see in. But pushing with all her strength wouldn’t budge it at all. Just then a really stern, deep voice says, “What the hell are you kids doing?” A big man in coveralls is standing on the back porch of the house in front of the shed.
Me and Stuart and Boyd start running towards Gran’s house. Adele must have run across the street and into her house. I didn’t look back to see what the man in coveralls was doing.
Later on Papa came out back to feed his bird dogs. Me and Boyd and Stuart were playing cars on the back steps again. “You boys behaving yourselves?” he asks.
“Yes Sir, Professor Poole,” chime in Stuart and Boyd. “Yep Papa,” I say.
“Mr. Thompson said some kids were messing around his storage shed this afternoon,” said Papa. “Know anything about that?”
We pretend not to hear.
“It’s against the law to mess with other people’s property,” Papa says.
“Yes Sir,” we all say together.
“Glad you understand that . . . rules are important.” And Papa goes back inside.
Years later I’d do things like study law and teach ethics. And I often thought about Adele, because I’ve met her many times along the way. There are some people who just like to draw up rules and enforce them. They’d rather make up rules than enjoy whatever the rules were meant to protect or create. They spend so much time making motions and adopting rules, there’s hardly time to do much else. I met a lot of these kind of people in home owner associations.
Speaker Tip O’Neal used to say all politics is local. I guess there’s some truth to that, but a lot of petty stupidity is local too. People can be pretty small when it comes to trying to regulate everything from taste to tulip beds. Especially when it’s somebody else’s tulip bed. Adele and us boys never had a single club meeting, but we spent one heck of a lot of time on making rules.