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Scuffle Hill
By Dell James
It?s dark and musty now, but it must have been a sight, pieces of glass and canning lids, tomato sauce like thick blood on the walls. A person running downstairs to investigate might have thought ?axe murderer? or even ?train wreck,? until they saw the pasta hanging from ceiling pipes like fiesta decorations in some sleazy Tiahuana nightclub, in the basement where Granny?s spaghetti exploded.

Here?s the roomy old kitchen, meant for those who knew how to can spaghetti and fry chicken and whip up spoonbread. There?s space for a table and chairs for taking the weight off your feet while you grate coconut and segment oranges for Christmas ambrosia. After the spaghetti I guess Granny didn?t spend much time here.

And the pantry, with its high cupboards. One held a breakfast set that stacked up on itself ? coffee pot/ sugar / creamer/ cup ? like a fat snowman.

And the elevator, no more than a closet really, with its criss-cross metal gate where children bickered over whose turn to say ?Going Up,? and secretly shivered a little at the thought of getting stuck, which, sometimes, they did. The children had been told that this elevator had once served to move a wheelchair and a grandfather with a bad heart and cysts as big as walnuts all over parts of his body, but as the children never knew this grandfather the cyst and heart information only added an exotic thrill to the uncertainty of the elevator.

There was never any question of a grandfather in the bedrooms. Certainly not on the sleeping porch, alternately frosty and muggy, its beds in a row against the wall, as many as three or four beds, from a time when the house was always full of noise and children who were too many and had to be somehow stacked up tight, side by side, or whatever the horizontal word for that was.

The grandfather was certainly not in the guest room with the French beds and drawings of shepherds and milkmaids. This was the children?s measle room where they lay in bed and were cosseted with milktoast and ginger ale and new puzzles, which lay un-worked while the children tried to raise their fevers to a hallucinating level, so they might see the little French milkmaid with pantaloons walk out of the picture, and curtsey and then walk back in. It had happened once.

There could never have been a grandfather in Granny?s room, with its massive oak four-poster and trundle bed for overnighting children, until they got too big and had to sleep in the sleigh-shaped daybed which, no matter what Granny said, wasn?t nearly as much fun. The grownups all said the green velveteen rocker had once belonged to the grandfather, but the children didn?t believe this one bit. How could a grandfather have lived in this powder-scented room with its plisse blanket covers and lace-trimmed sheets, this morning gathering-spot for aunts and babies and cousins of all sizes? This was a female room, boy babies excepted, with Granny enthroned in the four-poster with her breakfast tray til nearly noon, making her phone calls, paying her bills, conducting her correspondence, arranging her days, giving powdery kisses to the children and counseling the aunts.

Where would a grandfather, if there had been one, have hung his clothes? The closet smelled of damp Granny and old leather, a good place to hide and wait for the Shoe Fairy, who came only to Granny?s house, came at night to the shoes just outside the door and slipped in a box of new crayons or a silver dollar or, once, a gold signet ring.

A grandfather might have fit into the black and white tiled bathroom, into the large porcelain tub that rose on stubby legs and filled one end of the room. But there was another tub, a smaller twin to the first, where the visiting children took their own baths. To them this tub was all the proof they needed, this room an exclusive washing place, no fathers ever came here, certainly no grandfathers.

If there had been a grandfather he would have seen to the bad third cousins who came for a few days each summer and shot out street lights with bb guns or stood on the little balcony over the front door to drop water bombs. These cousins were to be pitied, the children were told, because they were rich and were tended by servants while their mama did something else. Nobody said what.

The only sign of the grandfather might have been in the attic, where the children giggled over unused blotters with out-of-date calendars and half-naked women in hats and feathers. How did they pose their legs in such a way as to make their bosoms so pink and pointy? When the children tried it, it seemed impossible.

Downstairs, the parlor held a portrait of a man said to be the grandfather, though the children doubted this smiling man could have been such, as he looked exactly like Uncle Bill. The parlor also held a Baby Grand piano. Granny herself would play, or one of the aunts, while Granny twitched her skirts and sang ?Tweedle de dee, Tweedle de dee, The fly has married the bumble bee,? kicking up her slim legs and her small feet, setting the children and even the aunts to giggling and snorting, and sometimes to dancing and singing. The secret pocket doors of this room hinted of wintertime, when they were closed, and Christmas Eve, when they were swooshed open to expose the glittering tree and a zillion presents, dolls and tea sets and cowboy suits and lassos and, for the aunts, dish towels embroidered with hurried stitches sewn at a child-sized gallop, which would all disappear with the first washing. Afterwards, the cousins and aunts and uncles, even the ones who lived just next door and down the block, found places to sleep in the big house, in the measle room and the upstairs hallway and even the frigid sunporch. Every fireplace had been crammed with stockings that filled the children?s fitful dreams. Often there were sleigh bells in the dreams, though there was rarely snow before January.

Once, the child tossing and turning in the sleigh bed whimpered until Granny took pity and spirited her downstairs to examine Santa?s bounty before any cousins awoke -- the little piano, the Madame Alexander doll. Granny made her promise not to tell, but the parents found out and were angry, which might have spoiled Christmas for them but not for her.

The house breathed its happiest then. Today it is home to Sunday School overflow from the church next door, and an occasional wedding reception or family reunion. The Mutt and Jeff bathtubs are long gone. There may still be a bit of tomato sauce behind one of the basement pipes or a calendar girl with pointy breasts hidden in a loose bit of attic insulation, Praise the Lord!, and begging the Episcopalians? pardon.

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