Dee Burton is the author of I Dream of Woody (Wm Morrow), a book about Woody Allen, and three other non-fiction books. She has also written two scripts for the stage: the first, “Deep in the Soul of Disco,” an offbeat comedic drama, was produced by Aahh Capella Theatre in North Hollywood following staged readings in Chicago and Hollywood. Her second play, “Just Like That,” a political suspense drama, received a staged reading by Pulse Ensemble Theatre in New York and was a semi-finalist in the New Frontiers Playwriting Competition. Dee grew up in Richmond, Virginia, spending her summers on her grandparents’ farm in Derwood, Maryland. She currently lives in Bordeaux, France.
The Magic Talking Voice Box
For all of history, Grandma’s been saying that when her ship comes in or when I turn twelve - whichever comes first - she’ll get me a horse. This summer, first thing when I got to the farm, I reminded her: “One more year to go,” I said.
“When my ship comes in,” she told me.
“Or when I turn twelve,” I reminded her again.
"If my ship comes in,” she said.
That’s the only thing so far I don’t like about Grandma. Sometimes she adds a funny little twist to things so you’re not quite sure you can fully believe her. But Grandma doesn’t lie. And she doesn’t drink or smoke or ever swear.
We hauled my suitcases into the house and as soon as we’d dropped them at the foot of the staircase, Grandma took my hand and led me right back outdoors. “Let’s go tell Mamie you’re here,” she said.
We found her playing in the garden: running in and out of the corn stalks and kicking up dirt around the cucumber hills. Grandma named Mamie after the President’s wife and that dog is such a beauty that no one dares to laugh.
“’Wife named her after the President’s wife,” Grandad tells the people who come to buy apples, and no one cracks a smile. Then, Grandad slaps his hand on his thigh and it makes a hiss sound like a whip and Mamie right there on the spot turns a somersault, or else jumps through a hoop, if Grandad’s quick enough to make one with his arms.
“Only son-of-a-bitch dog I ever knew taught herself tricks,” Grandad says. “Named her after the President’s wife, she did,” he says again. And then he chuckles to himself like he’s tickled pink with Mamie and Grandma and himself. And if he chuckles long enough, Grandad gets himself in such a tickle that he tells the people to go pick out an extra quarter bushel, free of charge.
Mamie’s a gold dog. She’s got gold and white and yellow fur that always stays clean no matter where she’s been, and that shines at night like a lightning bug. She’s an English Shepherd and Grandma got her all the way from Indiana three springs ago. Grandma treats Mamie different from any dog who’s ever lived on the farm. When a Christmas blizzard comes and the other dogs huddle together on the back porch or dig holes in the earth and belly crawl their ways under the granary to keep from freezing to death like the Beagle did one year, Grandma lets Mamie into the kitchen to lie by the fireplace. Grandma talks about her different, too. “Go call Mamie and the dogs,” she says at feeding time, like she just can’t stand to lump her in with those other animals.
Mamie’s the only dog who doesn’t work. Jill keeps the chickens out of the garden and Laddy herds the cows and even the Weimaraners join in for the snake killings. But Mamie just jumps hoops, turns somersaults and plays all day. When the dogs go after the snakes, the snakes raise their heads way up in the air and leap forward to escape, but the dogs always grab them by their throats before they get away. Then, sometimes the dogs whip the snakes’ poor black bodies into perfect hoops, and Mamie flashes in and out of those living hoops like split lightning. “Hell, Mom, you want a pet, why didn’t you buy a parakeet!” John T. said, but that’s all he said because Grandad told him to pipe down and go milk the cows. John T. growled and went on out. He and Aunt Eva and little John T. live down in the grey house at the end of the farm and John T. runs the dairy for Grandad. But according to Grandad, John T.’s never been much of a dairy man. And as far as Aunt Eva goes, she’s got red hair, and that’s about all there is to say about her.
Grandma’s got blue-black eyes and jet black hair and Indian brown skin and she’s scared to death of snakes. She’s not just scared of snakes - like the king snakes and black snakes that live in the giant old oaks and once in a great while fall from the treetops right down on top of you when you’re walking along innocent as can be and not suspecting a thing - she’s scared of snakes on television, and pictures of snakes, and even that’s not all! Grandma’s scared of a straight line on a sheet of paper. This is the God’s truth: you can take a sheet of plain white paper and draw a straight line on it - even a blue one with your Papermate ballpoint - and then you can hold it up to Grandma and she’ll scream in this voice like a banshee: “No! Take it away! Allison Grace, get out of here with that!”
There’s one more thing about Grandma and snakes: you can’t say the word in front of her, either. You can’t even say “sn--.” If you walk into the kitchen and say “sn--, Grandma, sn--,” the same thing again: that wild banshee yell and then she’ll chase you out of the room with a fly-swatter if she has to.
But there’s more to Grandma than snake-hating: she’s a God strong woman. I’ve never seen her cry. Not when Grandad threw his fit that time. Not when Mom had to go to the hospital. Even when everybody else is crying, Grandma doesn’t shed a tear. Like the time my cousin little John T. came running in to Grandma and told her big John T. was beating the baby. And the baby hadn’t even been born yet, and never was born alive. Grandma ran all the way, but by the time she got to the grey house, John T.’d passed out from the liquor, and Eva was in pretty bad shape. We all cried then. All of us but Grandma.
Of course, Grandma’s made her share of mistakes, to hear Grandad tell it. There was the accident the summer I was nine: the “ax-ident,” like she still calls it. A branch the size of a trunk had fallen to the ground when lightning struck the old oak at the side of the house. And Grandma was chopping it to go in the cellar with all the wood stored up for winter.
“That’s no way to chop wood,” Grandad complained as he marched up alongside of Grandma. “Let me show you how a man does that!” he said in his Army voice.
Grandad took the ax and Grandma stepped back beside me to watch. Grandad stood up straight and tall and he placed his feet way apart and he flexed the muscles in his arms the way John T. does, and he held the ax up in front of him like a baseball bat. Grandad swung the ax back, and then up above his head, and then - no one knows exactly how it happened, if his left foot slipped or what - but Grandad’s aim was off, and with a mighty force he slammed the ax into his leg.
The next thing I knew Grandad was rolling on the ground and he was crying out: “Oh God, save me! Save me, God!” And I looked to Grandma, but she’d already turned around and started running. I went chasing after Grandma and it was the first time ever I couldn’t keep up with her. She ran all the way to the hen house and then around in back of it to the chicken yard. When I caught up to Grandma, she was bent all over like a cripple, clutching her belly and making loud wheezing noises like a horse. I thought that something terrible like appendicitis had struck Grandma at the very moment Grandad axed himself. “Grandma! Grandma, what’s wrong!” I cried, and that’s when it hit me: Grandma was laughing.
She laughed and she laughed. Every time she went to speak, she laughed even louder. Finally, she pressed her hands real firm against her cheeks and held her face in place so she couldn’t smile. Her face was flooded with laughing tears. Her wheezing got higher and it sounded like the air coming out of a balloon.
“Leh--,” she said, and then she broke up all over again.
I didn’t know what she meant. I figured she wanted to tell me to go get help.
“Leh--,” she said again. And then finally, she got it all out.
“Let me show you how a man does that!” she hollered, and she fell all the way to the ground, laughing like a loon.
It was fortunate for everybody that John T. was in one of his kindly moods when he came upon Grandad rolling and moaning on the grass. Peeking out from behind the hen house, Grandma and I could see John T. wrapping Grandad up in some burlap and then pulling him all the way across the lawn, just like the men did with Ada the Ayrshire when she died last summer. We watched John T. pulling and lifting and shoving until finally Grandad was all the way in the pick-up truck. John T. hopped behind the steering wheel and sped out the driveway. And Grandma finally quit laughing.
Grandma had plenty of time for remorse while Grandaddy was at the hospital. All afternoon, she kept pacing up and down in the kitchen and back and forth from the kitchen to the den and mumbling stuff, like: “Oh, that poor man; dear God, that poor man. Oh, Allison Grace, don’t you ever tell your Grandad! Do you hear me now - I mean it!” Then, in between mumbling, Grandma would rehearse me. “I was running for help and I got sick on the way - it must have been my fear for you, Charlie,” Grandma was going to say to Grandad. Then, I was supposed to say: “Grandma was so scared she threw up, Grandaddy!”
“This isn’t a real lie,” Grandma said. “You know that, don’t you, Alley! I’d never tell your grandfather a real lie. But we mustn’t hurt the poor man’s feelings. Oh, dear God, that poor man! I wasn’t really laughing, Alley; you know that, don’t you? It was just my nerves.”
Grandma kept going on and on and I kept nodding my head. And then she’d rehearse me again: “Now, say just what you’re going to say to him, Allison Grace!”
It was sunset by the time John T. brought Grandaddy home from the emergency room. Grandma was in the bathroom when John T. came roaring up the driveway in the pick-up, tires screeching and gravel spraying high as the milkhouse. I watched through the kitchen window, while John T. helped Grandad out of the truck. Grandad had his left pants leg cut off like half a pair of shorts, and his leg below, down almost all the way to his ankle, was wrapped like a mummy. He held his leg slightly bent and he walked with a shiny cane. John T. walked alongside him, not touching him or anything, but ready to catch him if he toppled right over or something.
“He’s home!” I yelled to Grandma and she came running out of the bathroom. She looked so scared.
“Grandaddy’s still got his leg,” I told her.
“Oh, thank God,” Grandma said, and she wiped her hands real nervous-like on her old blue-checkered housedress.
Grandma and I went together to the back door. John T. held the screen door open and Grandad followed him in. I was all prepared. I knew just what to say. “Grandma was so scared she threw up, Grandaddy!” I was about to say, but it was already too late. Grandma took one look at poor old Grandad, with his bent-back leg and his shiny cane, and she burst into the loudest laugh I’d ever, ever heard. Grandma turned right around and ran out of the kitchen, whinnying like Trigger, and once again, I ran after her.
Grandaddy isn’t just a farmer. He works for the United States Government, and every morning, five days a week, Grandma jumps into the new maroon Dodge and takes him off to Derwood Junction, to get the train to Washington. Grandad gets up with the roosters and he gets dressed real slow, spends a long time in the bathroom, and a long time in the kitchen, eating Quaker’s oats with fresh, warm milk. But Grandma sleeps till seven-ten, and then she springs up in bed like a jackknife flicked, like her whole body awoke at once, and she pulls a robe on over her flesh-colored slip, sticks her feet in some mules, and flies out to the kitchen. She grabs her cow pitcher out of the icebox and heads for the stove and the coffee pot.
Grandma drinks three full cups of coffee standing up at the stove, not talking to anyone, and barely breathing in between swallows. She holds her cow pitcher in her right hand and her cup in her left and she keeps alternating pouring Half & Half from the cow and taking gulps of coffee from the cup. Sometimes, she goes back and forth so fast between the cup and the cow that she gets confused and takes a swig from the cow’s mouth or else pours coffee into its back. Twice every morning, Grandma has to set down the cow to pick up the coffee pot to refill her cup, and you can tell by the sounds she makes that this waste of time really gets on her nerves.
Meanwhile, Grandad has collected his hat and his briefcase, straightened his tie, and gone out to the car. When Grandma’s finished her third cup of coffee, she tightens the sash on her robe and tears out to the car herself. Some days Grandma wears her Chinese red kimono that old lady MacFetridge gave her before she died, and some days she wears her heavy white bathrobe with the white fur collar that looks like mink. Either way, Grandma’s sure to have on mules that match. She’s got shiny red mules to go with her kimono and white satin, high-heeled mules to go with her white robe. She jumps into the driver’s seat, turns on the motor and pushes the gas all the way to the floor. You see a big cloud of dust, and they’re gone from sight before you can say “Jack.”
Grandad’s the only passenger getting on at Derwood and so the train doesn’t bother to stop for him: it just slows down and he has to hop on. Grandad says it isn’t dignified. He says he’s an important man in the United States Government and the train should come to a full halt for him to board. But Grandma gets a kick out of watching him jump. “Nearly didn’t make it!” she says every morning when she gets back to the farm. “Your grandad nearly didn’t make it this time!” And, sometimes, she adds something like: “Caught his heel in the platform,” or “The conductor missed his hand and had to haul him up by the shirttails!” Grandma always arrives home perked-up and cheery, and ready for a good day’s work.
Grandad got even with Grandma this evening. “Your grandfather’s up to his stuff,” Grandma told me when I got back from going with John T. and Eva to the Safeway to get some Sealtest Fudge Royal for dessert. Grandma was holding up dinner for us because we were late on account of John T.’s stopping by the Esso Station to call some colored men names. Relatives had come for dinner and Grandad always gets up to his stuff when Grandma’s relatives come. Grandad has a spoon that breaks in half when you pick it up, a saucer that sticks to its cup so you can’t pull it off, three or four fake flies to put into ice cubes, and candy that looks just like Whitman’s chocolate-covered creams, only when you pass the plate of chocolates around and somebody picks out Grandad’s piece and they smack their lips and bite right into it, they sink their teeth into rubber.
Tonight, Grandad put out his water glass with the invisible hole at old man MacFetridge’s place. And every time old man MacFetridge took a drink, water trickled down his chin. “Why, Mac, you’re drooling!” Grandad said. “You’re drooling, Mac! You feeling sick?” And then, like usual, Grandad did his throwing-his-voice trick all through dinner. “Who’s that over there behind the dish cupboard?” Grandad’d say, and no matter how many times he said it, we’d all look over at the dish cupboard. And out of the cupboard there’d come this squeaky voice like a mouse. “To hell with Harry Truman!” the voice would say. Then Grandad would say: “What’s that? What’d he say?” And the voice in the cupboard would squeak back: “Shakespeare never repeats!”
Grandad’s worst joke ever was filling Laddy’s rubber ball with bees. He only did it once, but Laddy couldn’t eat or drink or open one of his eyes for days. One thing: Grandad would never think of playing such a joke on Mamie. But, tonight, Grandad had a new joke: the Magic Talking Voice Box. He gathered us all around him in the den and explained how it works. The Magic Talking Voice Box is no bigger than a pack of Camels. It’s got a circle on the front of it that you’re supposed to talk into, and a black rubber button under the circle. Right next to the circle, the directions say: Want to hear your own voice echo? Speak clearly into the circle. Then push the black button in. And what Grandad didn’t tell us is that the joke of it is: when you push the black button in, you jam your finger into a needle.
“Speak up and push hard,” Grandaddy said to old man MacFetridge when he went to play the joke on him tonight.
“Mac here!” old man MacFetridge boomed out. And he drew back his fist like he was pulling on a bow and plunged forward so hard that the needle went clear through his thumb.
“Yeow! Son of a democrat!” old man MacFetridge howled. “Yeow! Yeow! Son of a democrat!” Blood was squirting everywhere. The Magic Talking Voice Box was stuck to old man MacFetridge’s thumb.
Grandma yelled to John T. to quick take old man MacFetridge to the emergency room, but John T. said: “Shee-it! Let the old coot drive himself - he’s still got one good hand!” Grandma turned to Grandad, but he couldn’t go, either, because he’d gotten an urge to practice his harmonica. Grandma and I hustled old man MacFetridge into the Dodge and took off. “Yeow! Son of a democrat!,” he hollered out the car window, all the way up Needwood Road and Derwood Road and onto Rockville Pike to the emergency room.
Grandma didn’t say much on the ride back home, but her blue-black eyes were flashing in the rear-view mirror. We left old man MacFetridge, all bandaged up and quieted down, at his house, and we headed back to the farm. “You go on in,” Grandma told me, when we got out of the car. “I’m going to go see Mamie.”
From the back porch I watched Grandma head for the arbor that separates the grapevines from the raspberry patch. On hot summer nights Mamie sleeps right there in the open, curled up on an old dry feedsack next to the arbor. Mamie lit up like she hadn’t even been sleeping when she saw Grandma, and Grandma sat right down on the grass beside her. Mamie’s too big a dog to get all the way in your lap, but she got as much of herself as she could onto Grandma. Grandma rested her head on top of Mamie’s head and started rubbing her neck fur backwards. There were practically no stars out and not many lightning bugs, either. The only light near Grandma and Mamie was the yellow bug-killing light that Grandad put in last week. And from the dark on the porch, looking out at the two of them under the bug-killing light, Mamie looked like a lion from the jungle, and with her long black hair out of place, as she sat there hugging Mamie, Grandma looked like a girl.
I went on into the house. Grandad was watching the news on television. When Grandma finally came inside, she just sat down in her rocking chair without saying a word.
"Never would have guessed old Mac had that much strength in him,” Grandad said.
Grandma didn’t say anything.
“Or that much blood,” Grandad added.
Then, Grandma looked Grandaddy straight in the eyes and she said right out: “You know, Charlie, I put up with a lot.” And Grandad squinted his eyes like he does when he thinks, socked his right fist into his left palm, and said: “Damnation, Emmy, there’s going to be the devil to pay around here if I don’t get my Magic Talking Voice Box back!”
I got up early today and by the time Grandma got back from taking Grandad to the train, I’d watered all the indoor plants. Grandma has eighty-seven indoor plants and that’s not counting seedlings she’s started for transplanting outdoors. “I finished them all!” I told her as soon as she came through the door.
“Allison Grace! Have you got on underpants under those shorts?” Grandma said.
“Yes, Grandma,” I said.
“You waltz right over here, young lady!” she said. And I had to go over and pull up a corner of my red poplin shorts to show Grandma my underwear.
“Good girl,” she said. “A lady never goes out of the house without underpants! Don’t you ever forget that, Allison Grace!”
Every day, Grandma and I work faster than the day before. Today, we vacuumed the floors, mopped the porches, fed and watered the chickens and turkeys, slopped the hogs, and caught the goat, all before lunch time. Then, after lunch, we did Grandma’s red circle. Her red circle has cannas in the middle, then glads, and then scarlet sage on the outside. Grandma makes sure it’s weeded every single day so you can’t see even one tiny green thing in between her red-blooming flowers. Even Mamie’s careful how she walks through the red circle: walking real slow, she lifts each leg one at a time way up in the air just like she’s a marionette puppet on a stage.
Big John T. went drinking and hunting with the men today, so Grandma and I had to feed the calves, and hose down the dairy barn, too. And before he left this morning, John T. pulled up the pick-up next to the hog pen and shouted out right in front of Grandma: “Hey, Alley! Don’t step on any snakes!” He drove off a few yards and then he stopped the truck again and yelled back: “Watch out in that barn - it’s full of ‘em today!” So it took double time doing the barn because Grandma had to go in first with a pitchfork and, walking real slow and looking all around her, turn all the bales of hay and buckets and feedsacks over, looking for snakes. And there wasn’t a snake in the place! But Grandma said for working extra hard she’d let me make fudge tonight.
After dinner, Grandma and I put the dishes to soak, and we went with Grandad to the turkey yard. Every evening Grandad plays his harmonica for the turkeys to go to sleep by. There’s twenty-three turkeys this year and when we got to their yard, they were wandering all over like always: strutting around, ruffling their big grey-and-white feathers, and staring each other down. Grandad leaned up against the fence post and he began playing “Red River Valley.” Grandma turned a wheelbarrow upside down and the two of us sat down on it. She put her arm around me. The sun was setting behind us, and way ahead of us we could see the aluminum side of the silo turn pink from its reflection.
One by one, the turkeys hopped up on their roost. Grandad switched to playing “Mexicali Rose,” Grandma’s favorite song. The roost has three rungs and the turkeys who get the top rung have to work hard to lift their heavy bodies off the ground and fly up there. But they made it, every one of them. They wrapped their rubbery, yellow feet around the rungs, tucked their heads deep down into their feathers, and started dozing off. Grandad kept on playing “Mexicali Rose” till the very last turkey was sound asleep. Then, the three of us tiptoed away.
There wasn’t any cocoa for fudge, so Grandad said he’d drive me in to High’s to get some.
“We’ve gotta hurry,” Grandad said, as we slammed both our doors to the Dodge. “The man your grandmother loves most is on the T-V tonight.” Grandma likes to watch Gorgeous George on Wrestling and Grandad likes to watch her watching. She grins and shrieks and wrinkles her nose all at once, just like she does when Sammy Davis Junior comes on Sullivan. “Look at him! Oh, Charlie, just look at him!” Grandma squeals.
Grandad drove quicker than he usually does and we got back home in no time. He parked the Dodge at the end of the cement pathway and we went up the steps to the back door. Old man MacFetridge was coming out the back as we were going in. He was wearing a hunter’s red bandana and he had his shotgun and you could smell the whiskey on his breath. His eyes were open wide like little John T.’s get when he tells a lie. Old man MacFetridge was yelling back to Grandma as he brushed right by us. “That damn dog was heading for my hen house!” he said.
Grandad and I stepped into the kitchen and we just stood there, staring. Grandma was sitting at the kitchen table; she was crumpled forward like a dahlia dying. Her eyes were red, her face was damp, and her chest was shaking.
“Emmy?” Grandad said. “Emmy…”
“Mac shot Mamie,” she whispered.
Summer just stopped after Mamie got killed. The Rockville Volunteer Fire Department’s Annual Carnival was on for two whole weeks and Jimmy Dean and his Texas Wildcats were there every night and we didn’t go at all. And Grandma cancelled the corn-husking and square dance. She told the relatives it was because of the drought, and the sweet corn being so puny. But I know it’s on account of Mamie. And the biggest thing of all was Grandma didn’t enter anything in the Montgomery County Fair. She’d been canning and baking and pickling for weeks, but she didn’t enter a thing.
According to the Farm Journal calendar, there’s just six more days till I go back to school. You never know what might happen in six days at the farm. There could be one of those terrific August hail storms that split the oaks and flood the melon patches. Grandad and I might catch the apple thieves one night. There’s several mysteries remaining to be solved. Eva’s taking John T. to the doctor tomorrow to find out why he can’t stop drinking. There’s no two ways about it, though: this isn’t going to be the summer that Grandma’s ship comes in.