Friday, May 1, 2015

The Crazy Jug by Patricia Crandall

Two ladies dig for old bottles at an abandoned dump, and a neighbour takes a particular interest; by Patricia Crandall.

"Thanks be to God," prayed Nina Westacott. She genuflected and filed down the aisle along with the other congregants of St. John's Catholic Church in Indian Falls, New York. Once outside, she bustled along Maple Street to her tree-shaded gingerbread house.

Eager to get started, Nina slipped out of her go-to-church clothes, and changed into a jogging suit and sneakers. At ten o'clock, a horn tooted in the drive - Gert, punctual as ever. Nina smiled in anticipation of the adventure ahead.

Today, the women proceeded to a small dairy and Christmas tree farm five miles south of Indian Falls. They drove past a neat white farmhouse on a small hill where ancient trees spread their twisted limbs full of large green leaves. Soon they arrived at a wooden fence bordering the Gilhooley farmland. Gert parked her Subaru Outback off the road. She opened the trunk and removed pairs of rakes, shovels, hoes and garden gloves.

Mining tools in hand, Gert and Nina tacked off in the opposite direction of the house to a field of high grass. They slipped beneath a fence, glanced at the cows grazing in the lower field, and continued along a path to a steep embankment. Gert's short, square frame half-slid, half-shuffled downhill. Plump Nina's girth made it difficult for her to descend, still she managed to make it to the bottom without losing her ladylike composure.

The abandoned dump, once used by generations of Gilhooleys, was filled with rusty tins, shards of china and broken glass, cracked porcelain bathroom fixtures and a conglomeration of discarded household and barn items.

Gert and Nina claimed spots to mine a few yards from each other, unearthing brightly colored soda bottles. Gert picked up a cobalt blue bottle from the pile and held it to the sun, the better to read its embossed legend: C. Cleminshaw Soda and Mineral Water, Troy, New York.

While immersed in digging, the miners failed to hear a rickety hay wagon, pulled by an old mare, draw up along the edge of the bank and stop. Cyrus Gilhooley, an imposing 6'4" figure in well-worn overalls, hopped off the wagon, his shadow preceding him.

Nina let go of the amber soda bottle she was holding. It struck a brick and splintered into pieces. "Mr. Gilhooley, you scared me to death!" She set down her shovel with a clunk.

Cyrus removed his wide-brimmed straw hat and apologized. "Sorry, ladies. Didn't mean to cause you any grief. I just dropped by to see what was going on."

Gert tapped her shovel gently on the long neck of an embossed medicine bottle lying next to a carnival glass whiskey flask. "Come on down here and see what we've been digging, Cyrus," she invited.

The sixtyish farmer scrambled down the hill with little effort. He stood erect with hands shoved into the deep pockets of his coveralls and took in the scene. "Why do you dig for old bottles?" He removed his hat and scratched his head.

Gert heaved a shovelful of dirt to one side and puffed, "Nina and I collect antique glass and old bottles and sell duplicates at flea markets. Isn't this one a beauty?" She wiped dirt off an amethyst perfume bottle.

Cyrus speared a rusty teapot by the handle with a stick and tucked it under his arm. "I can fix this good as new," he said. He looked again at the pile of cast-offs, suddenly seeing opportunity where earlier he had seen only garbage. With new purpose he moved on to an untouched area, picking up agateware, tobacco tins, blue willow stoneware, a toaster, porcelain knobs and old bottles. Eventually he carted his discoveries up the hill and loaded them onto the wagon. From there he hailed Gert and Nina. "Hey! I've found a lot of old things I've been lookin' for. See you gals t'morrow."

"What do you suppose he's got on his mind?" Gert asked, annoyed.

"Beats me," Nina said.



On an uncomfortably hot July day, Cyrus came to the dump as was his custom now. Fanning his face with a switch from a pine tree, Cyrus remained seated on the wagon and called down to the miners. "Hey, Gert, Nina! I've got something to show you. Come with me to the barn."

It was noon and the two women were sitting on a fallen log that they had covered with a faded, hand-worked, quilt. The lunch Nina had packed was nearby. Gert was savoring a golden peach half she had plucked from a canning jar.

Gert whispered to Nina. "Why don't you go along and see what he's talking about? I'll stay here and dig, and share the lot with you when you get back."

Nina's eyes narrowed. "If I go, you go. Besides, you haven't dug anything worthwhile in an hour."

Gert surrendered to the inevitable and sighed. "OK, maybe my luck will change when we get back."

They climbed over scrub oak and made their way to the top of the hill. Cyrus assisted them onto the wagon and they settled on the wooden seat, then he signaled the mare to giddy-up.

The wagon bumped along an old pasture trail where cows and sheep grazed, passing through fields separated by stone walls and crooked fences. It wobbled through a field planted with Christmas trees, tilting at times at such sharp angles the passengers had to cling to its sides. A sharp wind began to blow, a welcome relief in the sticky humidity.

The slate roof of the farmhouse stood out among the tall pine trees. The trio passed the homely Gilhooley residence where a twisted old woman sat in partial sunlight on the front porch. Lillian Gilhooley strained to see who was driving the wagon and gave a lighthearted wave to her son. A collie wagged its tail beside her.

They drew up before a red barn and climbed out of the wagon. With long, easy strides, Cyrus bolted ahead of Gert and Nina. There, on thick-hewn shelves, antique glassware, old bottles, and shiny tins, were lined up in sparkling array.

Cyrus beamed. "Ain't that a sight? Everything I dug up is good as new."

Nina clasped her hands and stared at the stockpile, nodding vigorously.

Gert's eyes cleaved to an object in the corner. "What's that over there?"

"T'aint nothin' but an old jug. Been there for as long as I can remember... thirty years or more." Cyrus tugged at an ear. "You want it, Gert? Take it."



Back in her quaint, sun-filled kitchen, Gert unwrapped the jug, peeled off dried leaves and mud, washed and patted the old vessel dry. She reached for the telephone hanging on the wall and dialed a familiar number.

In the Westacott kitchen, Nina, snipping string beans, hurried to pick up the phone.

"Nina, come over here right away."

"Is that you Gert?" When there was no answer she stared at the phone, alarmed at being cut off.

Nina hurried across the gangway behind Franklin's Market to Gert's house. She climbed groaning steps to the back porch and went in through the ragged screen door.

"Hurry," Gert said. "I want you to see this." She held up the jug Cyrus had given her.

"You called me over to see that jug?" Nina said crossly. "I thought something happened to you. I could have had a heart attack, hurrying the way I did."

Gert thrust out a magnifying glass. "Come look at the pieces attached to this jug."

Nina shuffled across the uneven floor, accepted the magnifier and positioned it. She detected old coins, buttons and medals. Rotating it slowly, she viewed a china doll's head, a cameo, broken rosary beads, metal hoe and rake toys, old barrettes, shoe buckles and jewelry cemented onto it. "What type of jug is this?"

"I'm calling a meeting of the Indian Falls Bottle Miners Club. We'll meet here tomorrow. I expect one of the members will have an answer."



Next morning, an interesting assortment of people gathered in Gert's cozy kitchen. The unusual jug, set in the middle of an oilcloth-covered table, had caused a stir among the guests.

"It's a mystery to me," said Henry Porter, a wizened junk dealer with a fringe of white hair circling his bald head. "I've been in the flea-market business thirty-two years and never saw anything like this." He scratched his chin.

Sadie Gladstone, whose generously proportioned body appeared even larger in a snug-fitting leisure suit, was the most knowledgeable of the group. The curio dealer pulled out a pocket-sized diary. "Let me read this to you," she boomed. "In the late 1800's, there was a fad where individuals would cement onto old jugs and bottles bits and pieces of their favorite possessions. When this procedure was completed, it was called a Crazy Jug." She raised a forearm full of bangles, pointed at the jug and pronounced triumphantly, "That is a Crazy Jug."

Everyone in the circle began to speak at once. Sadie's voice rose above them all. "Usually a pair of jugs were made to decorate a mantle, so there's probably a twin to this somewhere."

"I'll bet my gold coins the mate is still on the Gilhooley farm," Henry Porter said, and banged his fist on the table.

Gert grabbed the jug and gave Henry a scathing look.

Donald Soames, an anorexic looking collector of antique clocks and Saratoga bottles, leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and gazed intently at Gert over his half-glasses. "Don't waste your time looking for the other jug, Gert. Cyrus Gilhooley has a twin brother, Clement. I'm of the opinion Clement has the mate to the jug."

"Cyrus has a twin?" Nina's face registered surprise. She was rocking in a chair by the window, sewing the back on a pale green baby sweater for her pregnant niece.

"Ay-yah. Lillian Gilhooley nearly lost Clement at birth. He was a sickly child and kept home under his mother's care. That boy was a half-wit. He still is."

Gert gave Soames an assessing glance and said dryly, "Why hasn't there been any mention of Clement in the village?"

"You won't find Indian Falls folks willing to discuss Clement Gilhooley in respect to old Lillian, I reckon. Clement's a recluse living in the backwoods." Soames blew his nose and wadded the handkerchief back into his pocket. "I've been to his cabin many times and offered a good price for his stuff. The barn's chock full of antiques. He won't part with any of 'em."

"It's still possible Cyrus has the other jug," Sadie said.

"Old lady Gilhooley splits everything down the middle with her sons," said Soames. "There's no doubt in my mind Clement's got the other jug."

Gert brightened. "I could ask Cyrus to speak to Clement about it."

"I wouldn't mention Clement's name to Cyrus if I were you, Gert." Soames shook his head dolefully. "The brothers haven't spoken in years."

"Where did you say Clement's house is located?" asked Gert speculatively.

"I didn't say." Soames grinned. "It's on Snyder Hill Road in Cambridge, next to Bloom's field."

There was little left to say after that pronouncement, so in a short time the meeting broke up. But Gert had already made up her mind.

The next day, as Nina and Gert threaded their way along the back roads to Cambridge, Nina said reproachfully, "I think you should have spoken to Cyrus first and told him what you're up to." She pursed her lips. "Must you have a pair of Crazy Jugs? What if Donald isn't right, and Clement doesn't have the other one?"

"Donald Soames is never wrong. You know what a shrewd businessman he is. He makes dollars off old coffee tins." Gert looked determined. "I want a pair of Crazy Jugs for my mantle."

Nina frowned. "Donald Soames is not an honest man. There are rumors..."

"I pay no heed to gossip," Gert retorted, parking the Outback before an overgrown hedgerow. As she opened the door, a dog growled beyond the clump of hedges and a chain clanked loudly. The two women looked at one another.

"You can do what you want, you old fool. I'm not moving another foot," Nina said.

"That dog is chained, Nina," Gert replied with conviction.

"He could be let loose, and may be vicious."

Gert scoffed. "People don't turn dogs loose on old ladies. If you're not comfortable going to the house, wait here. I won't be long." With determined steps she set off and soon reached a squeaky iron gate. Silently, reluctantly, Nina followed.

The bottle miners walked down a weedy path that opened onto a clearing. A desolate log cabin surrounded by wild flowers stood before them. Pacing between the front porch and a utility pole was a dog of mixed Doberman and Pit Bull parentage, secured by a leash on a runner. He growled fiercely.

Gert stepped ahead cautiously. "There pup, nice doggie."

Without warning, a bullet whizzed past her head. "Git off my property," yelled an old, crooked man suddenly appearing on the slanting porch step. At first, Gert thought the shooter was Cyrus. "It's Clem Gilhooley." She cried out.

He pulled the rifle trigger a second time. Another bullet blazed over their heads.

Nina screamed. Gert covered her head with her arms and ducked. "C'mon, let's git."

She retreated down the path with Nina clinging to the tail of her blouse.

Safely in the car again and headed back down the road, Nina snipped, "I hate to say I told you so..."

"Then don't," Gert retorted. "Anyway, this isn't over. We're heading back to the Gilhooley dump right now."

"Can't we catch our breaths? Say, at the Wildflower Tea House. I'm shaking all over." Nina held her hands out in front of her.

"We'll take tea and scones later," Gert promised. "I need to get rid of my frustration and digging in an old dump is the answer." She paused. "Clement expected us to come through the gate."

"Donald must have told Clement we were coming," Nina cautioned. "He'll use that wedge to get his way with Cyrus. He seemed very interested in the jug. "

"I owe Soames one."

"It's not worth the bickering and hard feelings, Gert. Let it be." Nina felt her pulse, relieved it was returning to normal. "I don't know how you're managing to drive. I'm wiped out."

"It was a shock to have bullets zipping past us. I'm fine now. I can drive."

"Then, why did you take a left turn with the right signal on?"



It was a fine afternoon, or what was left of it. At the Gilhooley dump, re-energized and putting the encounter at Clement's place behind them, Gert and Nina were hard at digging when a loud, crackling sound splintered the air. They carefully spread open the brush and peered at the other side of a thicket. Cyrus was shoveling rubbish into a pile. He gave no indication he knew anyone was there. Gert considered the situation for a moment, and then ventured around the prickly bushes.

"Pleasant afternoon isn't it, Cyrus?" She attempted to keep her voice steady.

"Yep, it is." His eyes never left the ground.

Gert snapped a twig off a piney shrub and peeled it. The scent was woodsy and pungent. "Do you remember the jug you gave me the other day in the barn?"

"I do."

"Sadie Gladstone says it's a Crazy Jug. Do you know what a Crazy Jug is, Cyrus?"

He gave a sort of a grunt.

Gert ventured on. "I heard your brother, Clement, may have the mate to it. Do you think he does?"

The old man's face turned to granite. "I've the other jug, Gert, but don't set your mind on it."

"What do you mean?" Gert ignored Nina's smug look.

Cyrus pressed his lips together. "Pay up $40.00 or give back my jug,"

"You gave the jug to me, Cyrus. Now you're asking for money. Why?" Her eyes flashed.

Cyrus' mouth twitched, "Donald Soames told me you were after the other jug. He said you were going to see Clement about it. He offered me $75.00 for the pair of jugs. I sold him the other one for $40.00."

Gert fumbled in her leather pouch and extracted two twenty-dollar bills. She handed the money to him.

Cyrus tucked the bills in his pocket. "Ya know, Gert, if ya'd minded yer business and didn't try to rake up hell-fire between me and my brother, ya could've had both jugs. I was about to give ya the other one. Ma uses it as a vase for dried flowers in the parlor. She's got plenty of vases; didn't need that one." He waggled his fingers. "Thank God Soames came along and told me you were going to see Clement b'fore I made a fool of meself."

Gert was about to answer when Nina grabbed her friend's arm. She bid a hasty goodbye to Cyrus and ushered Gert along the path to the car.

"That weasel, Soames!" Gert muttered.

Nina raised a fingertip to her lips.

Disregarding the sign, Gert went on, "Cyrus Gilhooley put my mouth in the back of my head."

Nina laughed, and dug a friendly elbow into Gert's side.

Gert took a deep breath and as the anger seeped out of her, she began to laugh, too.

As time went on, Gert retold the story of the Crazy Jug with a slightly different twist every time. And the Crazy Jug sits on her fireplace mantle all by itself... a reminder of the one that got away.

4 comments:

  1. Mostly light and lovely, with comic and sardonic commentary on the idiosyncracies and foibles of human behaviour.I love the 'bottle miners'. An entertaining read, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I agree with Ceinwen, and "bottle miners" does strike a chord. Light and fun, yet, I get the distinct impression there may be more adventures for Gert ad Nina on the horizon...

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  3. An excellent story of two amusing characters Nina and Gert. The atmosphere is light hearted, and the tale of the two women turns into an interesting adventure. This puts forward a point, that women are just as clever doing a deal as men. Love the scenery and country life setting. As an animal lover this suited me and I hope there is more to come about these two fascinating middle-aged women.

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  4. I have written several Gert and Nina stories and they have been well received. Thank you all for commenting on these two wonderful ladies. Stay tuned for more adventures. I can't write them fast enough.

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