A Witch or Not a Witch?
Jenny Maybelle Gillory wondered whether she should mow spooky old Miz Stogner’s yard. It could be risky, and it certainly wouldn’t make her popular.
Miz Stogner crept around hunched over a weird broom all the time and mumbled things that no one understood. Nobody liked her. Jenny Maybelle was afraid of what she might do with that broom. She always looked like she was about to sneak up on somebody and cast a horrible spell. Her grass was terribly high, too. It would be hard to mow.
But Jenny Maybelle needed another lawn to cut, even though she was exhausted after mowing that last one. She pulled a big lavender bandana from the back pocket of her ragged cut-off jeans, wiped the sweat from her face, and considered her situation.
“I ain’t quittin’ till I mow one more yard,” she muttered to herself with determination, and she stuffed her soggy bandana back into her pocket.
The steaming sun glared down on her as she pushed her rattling mower down the sidewalk and headed for Miz Stogner’s creepy, creaky house on Foggerty Street.
“You better not mow ol’ Miz Stogner’s yard,” Mo Bowling yelled at her when she passed his house. “She’ll turn you into a slug then step on you and squash you flat! She’s a witch!”
Without a word, Jenny Maybelle kept pushing her mower. What did Mo know? He was only a squeaky nine-year-old with a wild imagination, but she already was ten. A yard to mow was seventy-five cents in her pocket, witch or no witch, and seventy-five cents was worth a lot in the summer of 1954. It would help her mom pay the electricity bill.
“If we don’t pay the bill on time, our lights will be turned off,” her mom had told her earlier that morning.
“That means our fans will be turned off, too, and our house will get hot, hot,” Jenny Maybelle said.
Back then nearly everybody everywhere had only fans to cool their homes. Even schools and hospitals had no air conditioning. Without the fans, the Gillory house would be miserable, especially for Jenny Maybelle’s dad, who could only lie in bed and wait for his broken legs to heal.
Since their dad’s accident on his job at the Bustlebout Box Factory, Jenny Maybelle and her brother, Jay Mikey, who was in seventh grade, had to give nearly all the money they earned to help with the family’s expenses. Their mom’s paycheck from the Thrifty Dime Store was only twenty dollars each week. That was fifty cents an hour, minimum wage and pretty good pay for dime-store work, but it wouldn’t support a family.
“I’m never gonna get the things I want, if I keep havin' to pay bills," Jenny Maybelle mumbled as she pushed her mower along the sidewalk.
She wanted to get her mousey brown hair permed into the most beautiful hair ever seen on a fifth grader. None of the other fifth graders had hair as stringy as hers, and none of them had freckles on only one side of their face like her. She was tired of being the funniest looking kid in her class. Hardly anybody liked funny looking kids.
She also wanted a puppy. She was sure pretty curly hair and a great dog would make her popular in fifth grade. That was it. What she wanted most of all was to be popular, to be surrounded by friends. If she had a big gang of friends, she would never have to stand around by herself just looking weird.
She figured she would have all the friends she needed if she could win the 1955 Bustlebout May Day Festival Dog Show. She would walk out like a movie star, leading her dog on a sparkling leash, and everyone would cheer and want to be her friend. And the fifty dollar prize would pay lots of bills.
But she was only daydreaming. Now that her dad wasn’t able to work, she couldn’t save enough money to do anything.
And nearly every day her mom told her, “You don’t need to be thinking about perms and wiggly-waggly pets. You’ll soon be spending your time on reading and arithmetic. Fifth grade is going to be harder than you think.”
“Everything is gettin’ harder,” Jenny Maybelle answered nearly every day. “All I have is work and problems and more work and more problems.”
Her head buzzed with those problems as she pushed her mower along Foggerty Street.
“I have to quit daydreamin’ and concentrate on mowin’ another yard,” she said to herself. "Mowin' ain't easy, but it’s a good quick way to make money.”
Like most lawn mowers back then, Jenny Maybelle’s mower didn’t have a motor. When she pushed it, the single spiral blade between the two big metal wheels rolled over and over to cut the grass. Those metal wheels clinked and clanked on the sidewalk, so everyone could hear Jenny Maybelle going through the neighborhood.
To her, the homes on Foggerty Street looked like odd little gingerbread houses. They had long front porches with frilly woodwork and rocking chairs and green lawns with colorful flowers. The Gillory house on Havor Street also was like that.
Only old Miz Stogner’s house was different. It was a big spooky three-story house with the paint peeling off and the shutters dangling every which way. Jenny Maybelle’s knees shook when she went there that summer morning.
She asked, “Miz Stogner, may I mow your yard today? Your grass is mighty high.”
“Your price is mighty high,” Miz Stogner grumbled. “Seventy-five cents just for mowing a yard. Humph!” But she let Jenny Maybelle mow her yard anyway.
Jenny Maybelle barely could push the mower through the tall grass. She grunted and groaned as she struggled with it. Her face got as red as a pomegranate, and her shirt and straggly hair got soaking wet with sweat. She tried to be strong and brave by singing her favorite song, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” and by dancing behind the mower.
She saw old Miz Stogner peeking through her window, and old Miz Stogner shouted, “Stop dancing and singing in my yard. I won’t pay you for that!”
Jenny Maybelle’s mower suddenly bumped so hard against something in the grass that she fell against the mower handle. It knocked the breath out of her, and she dropped to the ground and sat there gasping for air.
Miz Stogner yelled, “Stop sitting around when you should be mowing my yard! I won’t pay you for that!”
Jenny Maybelle caught her breath and jumped up to see what the mower had hit. She pulled back the tall blades of grass and saw a big yellow cement toad with blue spots painted all over it. Its bulging eyes stared up at her, and its long tongue stuck out at her.
She knew she had to move that cement toad so she could mow the grass around it. She bent over and pushed the toad, but it was so heavy it didn’t budge. She pushed and grunted again and suddenly fell back in fear to stare at the toad.
"I know I felt that toad hop,” she muttered to herself.
The cement toad, about three feet from where it had been, just sat there and glared at her. Maybe she had pushed it herself, but she was afraid not. She looked toward the street to see if anyone had seen her jump away from the toad, but no one was there.
“If anybody sees me here jumpin’ like a ninny, I’ll be the biggest joke in Bustlebout,” she said to herself. “Nobody will ever talk to me again.”
Shaking with fear, she mowed all around the toad’s seat. Then, struggling and straining, she pushed the toad back to where it had been. With the grass cut, it could be seen in all its ugliness.
When Jenny Maybelle finished mowing, she had Miz Stogner’s yard looking perfect. She knocked on Miz Stogner’s door then ran down the creaky steps of the porch and waited on the walk. She didn’t want to be pulled into Miz Stogner’s dark old house. It smelled like she was in there brewing witch’s potions.
Miz Stogner opened the door and stood hunched over her weird broom. She looked at her lawn, but she wasn’t pleased.
“Humph! So you finally finished playing around in my yard,” she grumbled. “I don’t like what you did, so I’m going to pay you only sixty-five cents!”
Jenny Maybelle complained, “Miz Stogner, you said you’d pay me seventy-five cents.”
“I’m subtracting ten cents because you moved my frog,” Miz Stogner answered.
Jenny Maybelle said, “I put it right back where it was.”
“I don’t like my frog to be moved,” Miz Stogner grunted.
Jenny Maybelle thought Miz Stogner wasn’t being fair, so she blurted out, “It’s a toad and a creepy one, too!”
“Toads are frogs,” Miz Stogner said.
“Mean ugly frogs,” Jenny Maybelle muttered.
Then Jenny Maybelle had a scary thought. What if that big ugly yellow toad with blue spots was an innocent little girl that Miz Stogner had cast a spell on? What if Miz Stogner was about to cast a spell on her and turn her into an ugly cement frog? Jenny Maybelle began to tremble.
“You’re an ugly little girl, sassing an old woman like that,” Miz Stogner said. “That is why I’m subtracting another five cents. You get only sixty cents! Come here and get it.”
Jenny Maybelle slumped up the steps and held out her hand to accept the sixty cents. “Thank you, ma’am,” she said, but she didn’t feel thankful at all.
“Now, get away from here!” Miz Stogner yelled at her.
Jenny Maybelle, afraid to look back, got away from Miz Stogner and her scary old house as fast as she could. She wanted to run home, where nothing was spooky and she would be welcome.