Behind the Screen

Letter S from a vintage aluminum screen door grille

If Mama got to cooking and found herself in want of a cup a flour or a cup of sugar, she would place a measuring cup in my hand and send me next door to Mrs. Seay’s, where I’d ring the doorbell and wait for an old woman with frizzy gray hair and no makeup to appear behind an aluminum screen door.

Mrs. Seay always wore a house dress, the kind with buttons down the front. She never greeted me. She never talked. When she appeared behind the screen door, I’d ask if my mama could borrow some flour or sugar; then Mrs. Seay would open the storm door and take the measuring cup from my hands. I thought her name was spelled Mrs. C. The day I discovered a letter S on the grille of Mrs. C’s aluminum door, I decided Mrs. Seay wasn’t smart enough to know her alphabet. She had gotten her own initial wrong. Then and there, I realized I was smarter than she was. I knew my letters. The letter C and the letter S were entirely different.

But I feared Mrs. C.

Whenever we kids hit or kicked a ball into her backyard and climbed over the fence to retrieve it, I was afraid the old frizzy-gray-haired lady would come storming out of the house to yell at us. She never did. And we let plenty of balls fly over that fence.

One Saturday morning, a big black coiled-up snake appeared in our front yard. I don’t remember who told me. I just remember that by the time I arrived in the yard to investigate, a crowd of neighborhood children had gathered in a circle around it. I didn’t yet know the difference between venomous and non-venomous. I thought all snakes could bite you and kill you, and the sight of this one was terrifying. 

 I don’t know how long we all stood there watching the snake, but I know how the drama ended. It ended when an old, frizzy-gray-headed lady wearing a house dress and wielding a hoe strutted across the yard and into the circle. She spread her legs as far as the house dress would allow, then struck the creature, chopping off its head.

The snake was a rubber snake.

Mrs. Seay placed the hoe on her shoulder and walked home. She never said a word.

That was the day I decided Mrs. Seay was smarter than I was.  She was braver than I was, too. That was the day I decided she liked us. That was the day I realized that Mrs. Seay was pretty darn great.