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*****
False Memories
Book I: Thumper
by
Stephen Martin

Chapter Three: The Last Ragman, Part Three



Reprinted from the South Shore Puzzle Journal,
No. 58, January 2011
     "Ra-a-ags!"

     The Last Ragman's ancient, swaybacked mule slowly drags his clattering wooden cart up Belmont and left onto Fountain. We can hear its great hoofs chopping up the block.

     It's Saturday morning. I'm playing in the sandbox with Donna, the pretty Catholic girl who lives upstairs. I'm building roads with my big orange bulldozer so she can drive down them in her little blue coupe. I have to keep calling in the yellow steam shovel to hoist out the sand-battered lumps of cat poop.

     Closer now, the Ragman - the only ragman left in Worcester - again cries "Ra-a-ags!"

     Donna's wearing rolled-up Dungarees and Keds without socks. I keep looking at the sprinkles of sand glittering on her ankles. Maybe Catholics aren't allowed to wear socks on Saturday, like they're not allowed to eat meat on Friday.

     "Ra-a-gs!" he yells, mostly through his nose, like that Presbyterian priest.

     We stop what we're doing and look up as the mule comes into view. Cut-out ear holes keep a wide-brimmed straw hat on the poor old thing's gray head. A faded yellow plume tucked into the hatband bows with each step. On the seat in the front of the cart, hunched over rusty jingle bell reins, sits the small, thin, deeply tanne old man in patched coveralls. A tattered Scally cap rests on his enormous ears, which stick out like a monkey's.

     The Ragman softly says, "Whoa," and the mule slows down, almost to a stop. The old man turns his head and looks straight at me. Set deep in a chinless face, his coal-black eyes look like holes burned into a mask of dry, carved leather. It feels like they can see inside me, like he knows what I'm thinking. Goose bumps start popping up all over my body.

     In the same soft voice, still looking at me like that, he simply says "Rags." But he says it very seriously, as if he's trying to explain something important. And whatever it is, it's a personal message, meant only for me. I feel like running inside, but I don't want Donna to think I'm a scaredy-cat. And anyway, I can't take my eyes off those black holes.

     He finally turns forward, says "Git up," and continues up the street.

     Donna's going on about Susan Hayward as Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart. She's stroking her cheek with the back of her hand like the Ivory Snow lady. "She was so beautiful," she says, "and so brave. She had polio, you know, but she stood right up there in those awful braces and sang, even though she was in such terrible pain. I cried."

     But I'm staring after the Ragman, goose bumps still at attention, wondering what that was all about.

     "Ra-a-ags!"

     "And the real Jane Froman sings all the songs," Donna says, "but it looks just like Susan Hayward's singing. She was so beautiful, like a queen! She notices I'm not listening and is quiet for a minute. Then she changes the subject. "My Dad says there's molecules all around, everywhere."

     The Ragman barks, "Gee!" and they make the turn onto Bliss Street.

     "Are you okay?" she asks.

     I shake my head and look at her. "What are molecules?" I ask.

     "I'm not sure. They're invisible, like germs, and they're all around us."

     "Oh no," I say. "Germs are dangerous. Listen, here they come. Here come the molecules! Quick, get down!" We try to hide behind the foot-high wooden side of the sandbox. We're lying face-to-face in the sand, my left arm under her head. Her big brown eyes are closed. Her breath smells like . . . maple syrup.

     Suddenly those big brown eyes pop open. "I'm not afraid of germs," she whispers. Her eyes look serious but she's smiling, just a little bit.

     And it's true, she's not at all afraid of germs. I've seen Donna drop her Black Jack gum on the sidewalk, pick it up, kiss it, hold it over her head and then put it back in her mouth. When I asked her what she was doing she replied, "Kissing it up to Jesus, who makes all things clean."

     Across trhe empty lot behind the yard, as he makes his way back to Belmont, the Last Ragman calls, "Ra-a-ags!"

     "Hey, what are you doing, Thumper?" yells my father, home with the groceries and looking like a soldier in his khaki uniform.

     "We're hiding from the molecules! The molecules are coming," we shout back.

     "They're already here," he calls over his shoulder, entering the house. "Sand is made of molecules, and you are too. Come in for lunch."

     "What does he kmow about it?" says Donna, getting up and brushing herself off.

     Emptying my shoes, I say, "He graduated from college."

     "Then, how come he's a laundry man?"

     "I don't know. I'll ask him." I follow my father in, suddenly very hungry.

***
Copyright by Stephen Benjamin Martin
All Rights Reserved
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