by Betsy Burr
Sometimes in life you get a reputation—good or bad—for something you didn’t do.
Jacky Dunford snatched my scooter right out from under my nose and sped off across the street. Enraged by this breach of neighborhood etiquette, my five-year-old self took off after him on my tricycle, pedaling furiously, curls bouncing, oblivious to danger.
Now my street in 1946, Linden Avenue, was a pretty safe place. A short, narrow street, it had large houses built shoulder to shoulder, with many cars parked curbside. Linden Avenue was the private world of at least a dozen children who played on the street every day, having been shooed out the door in the morning by their busy mothers, only to be called home for lunch and dinner—except for my mother, who kept a pretty close watch over her only child. But danger can appear everywhere, and today it appeared on Linden Avenue in the shape of Mrs. Badger. Or was it—a later thought—in the shape of Me?
We lived in the center of the block, right across the street from Mr. and Mrs. Badger, an elderly couple who kept to themselves in a neighborhood where everyone else was compulsively friendly. Mr. Badger, so it was said, was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and had fought with Teddy Roosevelt at the battle of San Juan Hill—an idea that was reinforced by the fact that he always wore Rough Rider-type khaki outfits, with jodhpur pants and riding boots, if not a mustache and pince-nez. We saw Mr. Badger regularly because he walked down to College Avenue every evening to buy his dinner at the Inside Inn and bring it home in one of those little Chinese-food containers with a metal handle.
I asked my mother about this odd habit, because nobody ate out much in 1946, and she told me that Mr. Badger did not trust Mrs. Badger’s cooking—in fact, neighborhood gossip had it that they always ate separately because Mr. Badger thought Mrs. Badger was trying to poison him—and vice versa.
The Badgers’ house and ours were the only two homes on the block that had big side yards. Ours was a fenced yard, with playground equipment to tempt the neighborhood kids to spend time where my mother could keep her eye on what was happening. But when we tired of the swings, rings, and seesaw, we would spill out into the street to play Kick the Can, Dodgeball, or Red Rover. Sometimes our play resulted in a ball landing in the Badgers’ hedged garden, whereupon the Badgers would refuse to let us retrieve it and instead would call the police, who would get the ball for us. This scenario played out a number of times, until the notable occasion when the police showed up, retrieved the ball as usual, had a little talk with the Badgers, and then presented us with candy bars. (This may have had something to do with the Chief of Police, who lived next door the Badgers.)
* * *
I never had any direct dealings with Mrs. Badger herself until the day Jacky Dunford stole my scooter. Jacky was a six-year-old blond kid who lived with his mother just two doors up from me. You might say Jacky just borrowed my scooter, but from my point of view, he took it to get my goat without asking permission, which amounted to theft—a clear violation of neighborhood etiquette. We were all playing in the street at the time, which was considered fine by the parents, since it was such a narrow street that any car trying to pass through more or less threaded its way by parked cars, giving us plenty of warning. I leapt onto my tricycle and pursued Jacky like one of the Furies, yowling at him to dismount immediately and yield up his vehicle.
Jacky, of course, paid me no heed and sped away across the street and, yes, past the Badgers’ house. Now, as it happened, lumpy old Mrs. Badger was on the sidewalk in front of her house, trimming the hedge, when he dashed past her at an alarming speed. She turned around, taken completely by surprise, only to find me barreling toward her on my tricycle. Her reaction was to block the sidewalk entirely, open her enormous hedge clippers, and point them at my neck.
I screeched to an abrupt halt, in time to avoid hitting Mrs. Badger or having my head chopped off—though I can still see those hedge clippers yawning open like the jaws of some prehistoric beast, ready to eat me alive. But then an odd thing happened. After a moment’s dramatic standoff, during which we stared at one another in shock, Mrs. Badger fell over backward stiff as a board and passed out on the sidewalk, the hedge clippers pointed at the sky. They slowly sank into her lap as two neighborhood ladies, aroused by the clamor, came out to see what all the fuss was about.
I forgot to tell you that my usually vigilant mother had gone off to the grocery store and left me in the charge of these two ladies, Mrs. Hodghead and Mrs. Gum. So I was out from under my mother’s charmed circle of protection with no one to defend me when they emerged from their houses to find me, Betsy, mounted on a tricycle, looming over an elderly woman unconscious on the sidewalk. What were they supposed to think? Of course they thought, despite my denials, that I had mowed her down. “She was going to cut my head off!” I wailed, but no one seemed to care. Injustice heaped upon injustice! Mrs. Hodghead seemed particularly annoyed, as she remarked to Mrs. Gum, because I had interrupted her favorite radio soap opera, Backstage Wife, just at a critical moment. Never had I felt so alone in all my life.
“Call an ambulance,” somebody said, and one soon came to take away a groggy and protesting Mrs. Badger, minus the hedge clippers. The ambulance people were very reassuring and said there was no sign that she had been struck down, that she had probably just been frightened, but they wanted to run some tests because of her age. Mrs. Badger passed her tests with what my mother later mysteriously called “flying colors” and was soon home again. But to the neighbor ladies, I was still an object of suspicion for some time.
At this point in my life, I had had about five years’ experience being a Good Girl. I was good not just because I was praised for it, I think, but because I liked having rules to follow, even though I got teased for it by other kids. Now, however, the tables were turned. I had acquired a Reputation. The neighbor ladies looked at me as a potential troublemaker—I was the girl who mowed down old Mrs. Badger. But to the other kids on the block I was, for one brief, shining moment, something of a celebrity—The Girl Who Mowed Down Old Mrs. Badger.
Category: Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Story