General Fiction posted November 30, 2020 Chapters:  ...8 9 -10- 11... 

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A young girl's experience with the neighbors.

A chapter in the book Viewing the World With Fresh Eyes

The Neighbor's Chinkapin Tree

by BethShelby

My mother was a person who believed it was written somewhere in stone that all neighbors were special and should be handled with the utmost care. She went out of her way to make sure our family never offended any of ours.

We lived far enough on the outskirts of town and on enough acreage that we didn’t have any close neighbors. Other than my grandparents, who lived just over the rise of the hill, there was only one neighbor whose house could be seen from our house, and it was far enough away that you had to squint really hard to tell it was a house. Their land, however, extended well beyond the house and was in spitting distance of our own land. This qualified them as neighbors, who we must never offend.

The Caulwells were a fairly prosperous farm family; Henry and Miss Mamie were getting up in years, and I never had a lot of contact with them. Their three children were another matter. The two girls were nearly grown, but the boy was about four years older than me. One of my earliest memories of him was when he came over and attempted to teach me how to shoot marbles. His aim was to take all my marbles home with him. Why I had marbles, I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I never intended to shoot them. I think I had them because I thought they were pretty. At any rate, I developed a strong aversion to this young neighbor.

He was loud-mouthed and capable of making up outrageous stories, in which he was always the hero. He could do everything ten times better than anyone else. According to him, he could even beat up Superman. He seemed to think I’d be impressed with this declaration, but I wasn’t buying. The more I saw of him, the more I disliked him. The sister, Harriet, eight years his senior, graduated from high school about the time I entered first grade. She was the female version of him. So I didn’t care for her either, but that is another story.

She came over to my grandmother's house with about six of her high school friends. Grandma had a huge rose garden which was in full bloom that May. The high school had a tradition of having the junior class make a long chain of ivy and roses to lay at the feet of the seniors. At most graduations, the Junior class made paper roses from folded Kleenex for the chain, but Harriet had a better idea.

“I told my friends, it was silly to use paper flowers, because I had the sweetest neighbor that grew the most beautiful real roses, and that she would be thrilled to let us have them. I knew you wouldn’t mind. We’ve all brought our scissors, and you don’t even need to get up and come out. We’ll just get the roses and be out of here before you know it.”

Grandma was also ingrained in the myth that neighbors were to be treated as though they could do no wrong, so she kept her mouth shut, as her rose garden was raped of its beauty, and Harriet didn’t even see the tear roll down her cheek, as the girls waved goodbye.

Ruby Lee, the oldest girl, may have been the normal one. After she got her teaching degree, she found a man, and planned a wedding, after which she intended to move as far away as possible. Mom dressed me up in a long dress and informed me that the Caulwells needed me at the reception. When the neighbors asked, Mom said “Of course. She’ll be honored to be part of the wedding. ” Thus I had the prestigious job of sitting by the register book and making sure the guests saw that it was there to sign. It wouldn’t be right to say `No’ to a neighbor.

Every Easter Sunday, from my earliest memory, Henry Jr. came over early in the morning, bearing a note from Harriet, which announced that in the afternoon from two to four, their family would be hosting an Easter Egg hunt in their cow pasture. Mom was to have me there along with a basket and two dozen boiled and colored eggs.

Henry Jr. would tell me. “I’ll know where they’re all hidden. I’m gonna be the one that hides them. If you’ll be nice to me I’ll show you where they are.”  

No matter how much I’d beg Mom not to make me go, she'd always say, “They’re our neighbors. They’re just trying to do something nice. We can’t hurt their feelings. You’ll go and be polite.”

After Harriet finished College, she called my mother and told her she wanted to sell a lot of her older outfits which she’d outgrown, and she felt sure mother would want to buy them for me. Of course Mother didn’t want to disappoint our neighbor by telling her that they probably wouldn’t be suitable for a fifth grader. So for the next year, I wore some out-of-date and altered outfits that were designed for a much older person.

“Oh, these outfits are really beautiful.” Mom told Harriet. “You have such good taste, and this material really looks expensive. Beth will be the best dressed girl in school.” Not from my standpoint, I woudn't, but heaven forbid, that we should insult the neighbors.

Whenever I saw Henry Jr. at school, I tried to make myself invisible. One day, when I was thirteen and starting to look less like a little kid, he came over and asked my parents if he could take me to a ball game. If it had been me he had asked, the answer would have been a resounding `No,’ but Mom seemed to think it might be an insult to the family, if she turned their son down. Especially, when he was polite enough to think I might like to go to a ballgame.

Lucky for me, my dad had no such problem with turning neighbors down. He regarded these neighbors much the way I did. He said `No’ with expletives added. I was relieved, but at the same time, it did concern me that this might be his answer for any guy that ever wanted to take me out, from now on into eternity.

Henry Jr. didn’t give up. The next time, he made sure my dad wasn’t around. I was nearly fourteen by this time when he showed up with a bucket and he pointed down into his field and toward the woods behind it. He told Mom he was going down in his woods to pick up some chinkapins, and asked if it would be all right if I came with him.

The chinkapin tree, unlike the chinkapin oak, produces small nuts that form in a burr, similar to chestnuts. Like the chestnut trees, a disease had about stamped them out, and the ones remaining produced few nuts. Years earlier, when they weren’t so rare, I remembered them as being very tasty, but I hadn’t heard the word chinkapin in a long time.

“Really?” Mom asked. “I haven’t had a chinkapin in years. I didn’t realize there were any of those trees still around.”

“Oh yes Ma’am, There's a big tree of `em down in our woods. I’m pretty sure they’ve fallen by now. I’ll bet we could find a bunch of them. I thought maybe y’all might like to have some, too.”

“Beth, get that bucket off the back porch and go down there with him and pick up some for us.”

I shot darts at her with my eyes, but she seemed not to notice. Reluctantly, I stomped to the back porch and found the bucket and returned.

He jabbered all the way across the field and into the woods, but I just kept my mouth shut and let him talk.
When we were well into the woods, he searched around saying, “I was sure that tree was right over here. We might need to go down further. I haven’t been here for a while. I think we might have a way to go before we find it.”

“Well, you go look. I’m gonna sit right here on this tree stump and wait. If you find it, you can come back and get me.”

I wasn’t about to go any further. I doubted if there even was such a tree. Besides, the woods were swampy and I didn’t want get my tennis shoes wet.

He seemed disappointed, but he headed off and was gone about five minutes. When he came back he said, “Well, I found the tree, but something already got every one of them nuts. It was probably a bear. I saw some tracks. If I’d have brought my knife I’d have looked for him and killed him.”

“Henry Jr., you’re lying! You know good and well, there ain’t no bears in these woods. There hasn’t never been no bear in Mississippi. Not in our lifetime anyway. I’ll bet you didn’t even find that tree.”

I got up and took off running back toward the house. I’d barely made it to the edge of the woods, when something hit me like a ton of bricks, and I went sprawling in the dirt. The bucket flew out of my hand, and Walter Jr. was on top of my back.

I struggled to raise up yelling, ”Get off of me! What the heck do you think you’re doing? You’re hurting me.” He tried to keep me down.

I fought like a girl tiger. I bit his arm and dug my fingernails along his skin bringing a streak of bright red to the surface. He loosed his grip long enough for me to get free and jump up and take off again.

I only made it a few feet before he was on me again. I kicked and screamed and threw dirt in his face.

“Leave me alone, you idiot! Have you lost your mind?”

He wasn’t saying a word. He was like someone possessed. He eased up and let me get a head start, when once again he leaped at me and brought me down onto the plowed field. I pinched the flesh of his arm and twisted it. I bit one of his fingers as hard as I could clamp my teeth, tasting blood in my mouth.

I felt like I was fighting for my life. Once again, I was up and running. This time I managed to get within sight of my house, before he took me down again. I let out an ear-piercing scream. At this point, it must have dawned on him, that my mom might be able to hear and to see what was happening. He released me and got up. Still not saying a word, he took off toward his own house, leaving me behind.

Free at last, I limped toward home. My shirt was missing a button and my whole body was covered with dirt. Tears were streaming down my red face, as I slid under the barbed wire fence and back into the road in front of our house.

When I walked in our door, Mom was busy in the kitchen, blissfully unaware of what I’d gone through. “Did you get any nuts?" she called.”

”No, there wasn’t any nuts, and don’t you ever make me go anywhere with that idiot again.”

“What happened?" she asked. Alarm spread across her face when she saw me. “What did he do? Did he hurt you?”

“Yes, he kept jumping on me and knocking me down. I thought I wasn’t going to make it home. He’s a lunatic.”

“Did he touch you somewhere inappropriate?”

“No, he didn’t get the chance.” A look of relief spread across her face.

“Maybe he was just playing rough. He probably doesn’t know how to act around girls. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything.”

“No Mom, I’m sure he didn’t. After all, he’s our neighbor,” I said as I limped to my room.

We didn’t see any more of Henry, Jr. for a while after that. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. Several years later, we learned he was engaged to a girl he’d met from another town. Mom insisted on hosting a wedding shower for them. It was the neighborly thing to do.

Brett Matthew West Prose Challenge contest entry


Word Count 2,254
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