THOMAS EDISON WAS A JERK
“Do you remember Thomas Edison?” I ask Den as he sits at the table, catty-cornered from me.
Den gives a little snort of air as he sets two coffee mugs, filled nearly to the brim, in front of him. “Cream and sugar, Peg?”
He plops a dash of sugar in mine and then pours a bit of cream from a small carton he had carried from the fridge while the coffee brewed. Den slides my mug over the smooth surface of the table and while I wait for it to cool, he boldly takes a sip of his straight black coffee and ponders.
“I remember Thomas Edison was a jerk,” he says, and we both laugh.
Because he was. He really, really was.
I was only a little girl at the time, and Den was even younger than me, so I’m vaguely surprised he can remember anything at all about those days. I myself only remember it because of mom. It’s been forty years now, but I remember her face like it was yesterday. She was so beautiful. Long, straight brown hair to her waist, high cheekbones, a thin face with a long, slender nose and delicate chin. Underneath long, dark lashes her radiant green eyes shined.
The day it all started, I remember looking up at her as she clotheslined laundry, thinking maybe those green eyes were looking less radiant than usual. She had dark circles under her lids. I didn’t know it, but mom wasn’t getting as much sleep as she should. The pain was too much. But she was hiding it from me, hiding it from all of us back then, except dad, of course.
“Peggy honey,” she said as she pinned the last of Mrs. Dumont’s summer dresses to our back yard line, “go get the next load please.”
“Yes, mommy.” I dutifully took hold of the big basket and trundled off around the house, dragging it behind me.
Rose Lowery was her name. She was my mother, and I loved her very, very much. More than I can say in words on a page. My name is Peggy, though as I’ve already said my family mostly calls me Peg these days. I’m not one of those Margarets who goes by Peggy, either. It says right there on my birth certificate Peggy Lowery, so I am a Peggy through and through. I am over fifty now, my own son is grown and moved out on his own, but I was only eight then, living with my parents, Fred and Rose, my older brother Lewis, older sister Patricia, and little brother Dennis. You already met him, though many years later. Den was only six back then, playing around in the back yard without a care in the world. Lucky him, he didn’t have chores yet.
Dad was an electrician by trade, although he also did carpentry and general handyman jobs, and he worked long hours for very little money, almost nothing by today’s standards. To make ends meet, mom took in washing from around the neighborhood, from other families who didn’t have the time to do their own. When we weren’t in school, we helped, except for Lewis who usually had baseball practice after school. Back then this was considered “girl work” anyway, as it was usually Patricia and I who ended up helping. She was sitting on the front steps, wash boarding the clothes and setting them in another basket, which I would trade for the empty one. Yes, we didn’t have the benefit of a fancy washer and dryer, even then in the mid nineteen-fifties when most families had them. We had to wash board them, wring them out and hang them up. It was long, hard work, and in Texas the summer afternoons are hot and unforgiving.
But I was eight. For me, it was all a fun adventure. I whistled and skipped along with the basket, which is why I didn’t notice the dog until it was almost right up on me.
“Pa-trish-ahhh,” I sing songed along. “Time for more more morrre!”
Patricia looked up from her washing and blew an errant, strawberry blonde curl out of her eyes. She was fourteen, dressed in a plain, light blue blouse and matching skirt. Those blonde curls, which always made me so jealous, even then, were tied back with a white kerchief, but a few renegade curls always fought for freedom.
As she blew the hair away from her eyes, they widened, and she stood from the stoop and pointed.
“Peggy! Look out!”
I stopped short. “Huh?”
A growl came from behind me, and I felt myself go cold all over.
I turned and saw him for the very first time. He was a big, black Doberman pinscher, nearly as tall as me, with black eyes and long, pointed ears that were standing straight up. The brown around his snout was stretched wide as his mouth hung open, baring big, nasty fangs. He had growled as I turned, but now he wasn’t so much growling as making an angry huff-huff-huff.
“Hi doggy,” I said, not fully understanding the situation. “Good doggy?”
The Doberman’s ears flattened, and he let out a very scary bark, a deep throated sound that passed through his chest and made his legs flex.
“Run!” Patricia grabbed my arm from behind and run we did, dashing around the side of the house. The Doberman gave chase, barking as it ran. Why we didn’t run in the front door I do not know, except perhaps that we expected we would find my mother still there in the back yard, next to the clothes lines where she’d been waiting for me, but she was not there. She had gone inside, and though I wasn’t aware at the time, it was probably because she was in pain and badly needed rest.
“Mommy!” I screamed, feeling the dog’s hot breath on my back, or imagining I did so.
Den was still there, playing in the dirt, and he looked up with a shocked expression that, on his six-year-old face, would have been comical at any other time. Had I had time to think about it, I’d surely have found it strange that mom had gone in without taking him along, further evidence that she was having a great deal of trouble and keeping it from us.
But I didn’t have time. Patricia scooped up Den into her arms and we ran between two hanging bedsheets. As the dog stopped to grab hold of them with its teeth and yank them down, we turned and headed around the other side of the house, back to the front.
There we were lucky, as my father’s beat up blue Ford truck was pulling into the driveway just as we emerged around the corner of the garage. We were breathless as we ran up to the passenger door. Lewis hopped out, looking at us bemusedly. He was holding his baseball glove in one hand.
“What are you girls up to?” he asked with a wink.
Once he had gotten us to calm down enough to stop screaming our words over one another, my father took my hand in his and walked with Patricia and me back around the side of the house. His hand was dry and course, the hand of a man who had worked hard all his life. He was tall and lean, his skin a baked tan with a bit of red on his neck (from which I understood even then the term ‘redneck’ originated, although I did not associate it as a pejorative term, not back then). My brother jumped in front of us all with his baseball bat raised and ready. They both wore faded, worn blue jeans, my father because they were durable for the work he did, and my brother because they had recently become the thing for kids at his school. While my brother wore a long sleeve pullover shirt, though, my father was in his usual white undershirt and button down plaid.
“Lewis,” Dad said in a cautionary tone.
I would love to tell you we found the dog had disappeared, or even that he was sitting there waiting for us. What we found instead made my heart sink and blood rise in my cheeks.
Our yard, the carefully hung laundry, even the clothes lines, all were ruined. The dog had continued pulling sheets and clothes down after we’d run and, apparently, once that bored him, he had somehow gotten ahold of the lines themselves and pulled them down, ruining everything still hanging. Judging by the paw prints, he’d then tracked through the muddiest hole he could find and danced all over every clean patch in sight. It was if he knew how hard we had worked all day and wanted to make sure each and every bit of it had to be redone. To this day, I’m not sure that wasn’t the case.
As for the dog himself, we found him setting into my mother’s garden, where she grew various vegetables for our dinner table (we couldn’t afford to go to the market all the time, and although we did buy from local growers who sold by the roadside when we could, it helped to supplement from our own garden). He had just gotten his teeth around the top of an onion and was working it loose of the soil when my brother shouted.
“Hey you! Dog! You get out of there!” He ‘wound up’ with the bat as if about to take a swing at empty air.
The Doberman stood, releasing the onion, and turned to face him. It stood tall, ears raised, head high. His jaws clenched, eyes wide open and alert. A low growl emitted from his chest.
“Stay behind me, girls,” my dad said. He waved a hand, “Go on, git!”
I don’t know when it started, but Den at some point had begun crying, and by now it was getting louder. The sound must have woken my mother (if she had fallen asleep at all, I can only guess), and she appeared at the back door, her face looking awfully pale.
“Denny?” she called. “What’s—“
The dog turned and issued a bark that caused her to bring a hand to her throat reflexively.
Dad stepped forward, wresting the bat from Lewis’ hands with one fluid motion. He pointed it directly at the dog’s head.
“You get out!” he shouted.
The dog looked back at him, then again at my mother, and then it, and I don’t know any other word that quite fits, but it trotted back around the house toward the front yard.
“In the house,” Dad said with a gesture of the bat. Lewis took hold of me and ushered us all inside. The last thing I saw, craning my head around, was my dad following the dog out of sight.
Dad came in through the front door several minutes later and said the dog had run away. Patricia, Denny and I were made to stay inside while he and Mom went outside to survey the damage. Eventually, all of us except Den had to go back outside and help with the cleanup.
It was long, hot work with none of the smiles and laughter I had had earlier. This was no longer a game. The whole afternoon’s work would have to be redone, and it would take my parents long into the night. Being a school night, the rest of us were left to finish homework, clean house, and make dinner ourselves (it was mostly Lewis and Patricia who did that, Den and I tried but weren’t very helpful I’m afraid).
At dinner, my dad tried to make conversation, but it was halfhearted. He knew he had hours more work to do to help my mother, who was in more pain than any of us knew. She sat silently, pushing potatoes back and forth on her plate and occasionally taking a small bite. My dad also knew no matter how late he went to bed, he’d have to wake up at five-thirty in the morning as always. He couldn’t afford to miss work. No one in my family was allowed to miss a day of work or school, and it had been that way since before I was born.
“I’m writing this report for my history class,” Patricia said. “It’s about Thomas Edison.”
“Mm.” Dad nodded.
“He invented the light bulb!” I chimed in, impressed with myself.
“Hey, that’s pretty good, pumpkin,” Dad said approvingly.
“Yeah, I mean, he kind of did,” Patricia said.
This caught our attention. Dad put down his fork and squinted at her. Even Mom seemed interested.
“He invented the bulb, but this guy Tesla invented the current that comes to your house. And Edison tried to run him out of business, he did all kinds of bad things. He was kind of a jerk.”
“Hm.” Dad nodded and went back to eating.
“We should call that dog Thomas Edison,” Lewis said.
We all looked around at each other, grins spreading on our faces. Then, Denny let out a giggle and we all lost it. I don’t think any family has ever needed a laugh more than we did at that moment. Mom covered her mouth and shook, her cheeks turning red. Dad slapped the table a couple of times with his right hand, a sure sign that he was laughing too hard to compose himself.
“Thomas Edison!” I said, giggling.
I had no way of knowing at the time that I would never forget that name. For my whole family, this moment would never go away.
This was, and always would be, the summer of Thomas Edison.
I walked down the street to my friend Dorothea’s house the next day. Her mother had said I could come over after school and Mom gave me permission. After the previous day’s ordeal it seemed she thought I could use a little fun. Dorothea and I giggled and tied our pigtails into ribbons together and then walked to the corner store, thinking we looked terribly sophisticated with our curls blowing in the wind. There we bought two Patricia suckers and had nothing in mind but a walk back home in the afternoon, savoring the sweet fruity taste and the warm sun. As we turned around the store front and headed back down the lane, my mouth dropped.
He emerged from the alley behind the store, his ears perking up as soon as he saw me.
I sucked in a scared breath. “Thomas Edison.”
“What?” Dorothea giggled, not knowing and not seeing. Looking at me.
The dog came forward faster, moving into a trot.
I grabbed Dorothea’s arm. “Run. Go! Run!”
“What is…” She turned just in time to see Thomas Edison bare his teeth.
“Run!” I screamed.
Dorothea shrieked and we both ran as fast as we could. But as fast as our little legs could carry us, Thomas Edison was faster. He circled us and ran in front, forcing us to double back. He did this several times, always coming close enough to snap at us but never quite making contact. We doubled back again and again, and by increments made it down the street to her house, where we ran inside and cowered against the door, shaking and crying and holding each other. Our curls were forgotten, the carefully tied ribbon that I’d been so proud of long gone, torn away by the wind.
A phone call later and my father came to get me. We tremulously opened the door to find the dog vanished, but Dorothea’s lawn bore the telltale signs of his presence. Roses torn up, decorations knocked down. My father took me in his arms and I sniffled into his shoulder.
“That damn dog,” he said.
Over the next few weeks, my family learned two things.
The first thing we learned was Thomas Edison was not going anywhere. He surprised me from behind bushes. He followed me from down the street. Once, he was chasing a passing car, nothing to do with us, and spotted Patricia and me, immediately turning to chase us. We never knew who he belonged to or where he came from. He simply seemed to appear on our street and become our nemesis overnight. We tried to give him food, thinking maybe he’d learn to be friendly. He just ate, then overturned the bowls and tore the yard up more. He always chased us, always growled, always came close to biting without ever doing real damage. He did get ahold of our clothes a few times. We had torn dresses to mend more than once, and even Lewis had to patch his jeans, right on the seat. He was not happy about that, I can tell you. No one laughed at the name Thomas Edison at dinner anymore, and in fact it was no longer mentioned, even though we all thought it. Even the book report on the real inventor Edison was a forbidden subject now. We didn’t care who invented the current or the bulb, we just wanted a way to get rid of “our” Thomas Edison and get him out of our lives forever.
The other thing we learned, or I should say my brothers, sister and I learned, came as quite a shock to us all. If we’d been paying attention, it wouldn’t have. It really wouldn’t. The clues were right there for all to see. But we weren’t, I guess. Too caught up in our own stuff, even before Thomas Edison showed up.
One day, while we were working on a load of sheets (which was made much more difficult by the fact that we now had to bring everything indoors to work on it, even the clothes line which was now hanging across our garage, dripping over boxes of stuff that had been out there for ages), just as I brought her a fresh basket, mom doubled over in pain and screamed.
I say the clues had been right there, and they had. I had seen mom clutch her belly or gasp suddenly, but she always explained it away as a cramp or some such. But there was no explaining this away as indigestion. She screamed like she’d been stabbed, and I now know it truly felt that way, and doubled over, falling to her knees with her forehead almost touching the carpet.
“Mommy!” I dropped the basket and ran to her, terrified.
For several frightening seconds she grit her teeth, pounded the carpet with one fist, and said nothing. She just made a terrible sound from between her teeth: “Nnnunnnggg, nnngggg, guhnnngggg…”
“What’s wrong, Mommy? What’s wrong?” I wrapped my arms around her, which I now realize must not have helped any, and shook her.
After a time, she seemed to return to herself, and lifted up, sitting back on the backs of her legs and holding me very gingerly, her hands shaking. “I’m okay, baby. Mommy’s okay.”
Daddy sat us down at dinner, holding hands with Mom, and they explained to us that Mommy was sick and had been for some time, but it was getting worse. They tried to answer all our questions, but there was really only one answer that mattered to us: this was not going to stop, it was only going to get worse, and our Mommy would die from it. Not long from now.
I couldn’t bear it. Could not. I stood up and ran for the bedroom I shared with my sister, crying so loud it was almost a scream. I threw myself onto my bed, burying my head in my pillow and cried. My mother followed soon after, laying almost on top of me with her arms wrapped around me, rocking me and stroking my hair as I sobbed into the pillow, deep long sobs that tore the air out of me in a mournful wail. My mother stayed with me there for a long time, giving me comfort at the news of her own impending death. I will never forget that.
There was only one thing I didn’t learn about my mother’s condition that day, and that was for the best really. It was already more than I could stand. I’d learn the rest many years later, on my own. With the terrible revelations of that night, I’m afraid I had forgotten about Thomas Edison entirely.
He had not forgotten me.
A few days later, while my sister and I were working in the garage, we heard a loud bang from inside the house. We both jumped, then giggled at each other. Dad had gone to the store, taking Lewis and Denny with him. It must have been the front door banging open as they came in, I assumed.
“I’m gonna go help Daddy,” I said.
“Okay,” Patricia said, sitting down on an overturned paint bucket we were using as a stool.
I went through the door that led into the house. There was a small entryway where a side door to the front yard, closest to the driveway where Dad would have parked his truck, stood. My smile fell as I found this door closed. I looked down the hall on the other side. This hall led past the bedrooms to the living room, which was adjacent to both the main front and back doors. I couldn’t have heard one of those doors bang open or closed, could I? I went to the closer door and opened it. The screen was closed, and no truck was in the driveway.
My next thought was for my mother. Could she have fallen?
“Mommy?” I called, turning away from the door and toward the hall.
I stepped down the hall, leaving the side door to the front yard open, and went to her bedroom door. She was asleep in her bed, and nothing seemed amiss.
More confused than ever, I turned and walked into the living room.
“Daddy?” I called, which now that I think back on it made no sense because I had just confirmed his truck was not in the driveway. He couldn’t have been home.
This time I jumped nearly out of my skin I was so startled. My eyes turned in the direction of the sound, and saw light streaming through the front door, just off the living room. The shadow of the door moved back and forth with the wind, creating more, first smaller then louder bangs as it rapped the frame.
My hand went to my throat as I realized what had made the sound, merely the wind blowing the door open and shut. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, waiting for my breath to calm, and went to the door.
“You scared me, dumb door,” I said, holding it still.
I looked outside, into the front yard. A strong wind had indeed picked up, blowing the pine trees that lined our street to and fro. It actually felt good to me after the sweaty stillness of the garage air, but I was wary. Thomas Edison returned to my thoughts all at once, and I stuck my head out and looked around the yard, back and forth, up and down our porch and sidewalk: Nothing.
I closed the door with a bit of satisfaction, turning the lock, and turned back, leaning against the door with my eyes closed.
A chuff of air in front of me made them snap open again.
There the Doberman stood, ears forward, eyes fixed on me, in the door to the kitchen.
I screamed and ran to the right, into the living room, with Thomas Edison hot on my heels. Rather than turning down the hall toward my mother’s bedroom or the garage (as a sensible person might have done), I instead ran into the dining room and positioned the table between us.
“Mommy!” I called, trying to keep the table between myself and the dog, an obstacle in my mind only, as he could easily have passed underneath, now that I have the benefit of hindsight to consider. But he didn’t. He jumped and yipped and moved left and right, countermove to my move, or perhaps the other way around. He got no closer but showed no sign of giving up and leaving, either.
Having heard the commotion, Patricia came running down the hall but stopped cold in the entrance to the living room when she saw the dog chasing me at the dining table. She clapped her hands over her mouth and froze in a solid panic.
Our mother came behind her, moving painfully slow and holding her belly gingerly. She saw the dog and physically grasped Patricia’s shoulders.
“Go open the front door, baby. Now.” She turned Patricia toward the door and gave her a gentle push.
Patricia didn’t answer, just ran to the front door and opened it. Thomas Edison couldn’t (I don’t think) quite see the door from his position, but he heard them and turned away from me, and he could see the light from the doorway.
My mother stepped forward and raised her voice, putting a hard edge to it. “Now you get out of here!”
Thomas Edison looked back at me, but my mother clapped her hands, demanding his attention. He faced her fully, and his ears popped up and forward. He didn’t make a sound, just stared.
“Go on! Get!” She snapped her fingers and pointed at the door.
The Doberman barked once.
“Get out- OH!” My mother grabbed her middle and bent over. “No. NO! OH NO!”
The dog cocked its head, not sure what he was witnessing.
Mother stumbled backwards in her pain and her back in the wall with a loud thump. She leaned forward, doubling over in obvious agony.
“Mommy!” I ran around the table, forgetting the dog and darting across the living room to mom, trying to hold her up. She placed a hand on my shoulder but her weight was too great. She was teetering forward, on the edge of falling to the floor. I don’t know where Patricia had disappeared to in that moment, now that I think of it. She must have gone right out the front door when she opened it.
In that moment, the most unexpected thing of all happened. Thomas Edison came forward.
The dog licked my mother’s face tenderly, and she seemed to recover from the pain a bit. She placed a hand on him, and he squared up and helped prevent her fall. She finally was able to stand again, leaning against the wall, and looked down at us both in amazement.
Thomas Edison turned and padded away toward the front door, and it was then that my dad strode into the house, rifle in hand. I don’t know how it all had come together, I never asked then and it’s hardly important now, but Penny must have seen him pulling up in the pickup and run to get him, told him the dog was attacking me and mom, and he came as fast as he could. After our other encounters with Thomas Edison all summer, and given mom’s condition, I can hardly blame him for bringing his gun. This was the final straw.
He waved at mom and me to move back as the dog faced him and he cocked the rifle. He didn’t aim it, not yet. He was angry but my dad was not so poor a gun owner as to aim his rifle with his wife and daughter in range.
“Run, you two,” he said.
“No daddy! No!”
I ran past the dog and grabbed his legs, forcing him to hold the rifle down and away.
“Peg, what are you doing?”
I didn’t know how to explain what I’d seen. I wasn’t even sure if it mattered. I just knew dad couldn’t shoot Thomas Edison now, not after what he’d done for mom. She was against the wall, pale and breathless, unable to speak. So I turned back, and did the only thing I could think to do. I screamed at the dog louder than I had ever screamed in my life.
“BAD DOGGY!” I screamed. “YOU GET OUT! OUT!” I pointed to the door.
“YOU’RE A BAD DOGGY, AND I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!”
He flattened his ears and lowered his head. The he silently padded his way past us and out the front door, and was gone.
I saw him one last time, and only from a distance.
It was the first day of school, and I stood waiting for the bus with my siblings and other kids from our street. I was clutching my little lunch box handle in both hands, looking nervously between my feet and the corner where the bus would turn toward us, when I saw him.
He was across the street, sitting on his haunches and staring at me with his ears perked up. My eyes widened, and he saw me seeing him, or he seemed to, because his head and ears drooped. He looked sad, all of a sudden, sad and lost a little, like he wasn’t sure what to do. Then the bus came around the corner and passed in front of him.
The doors opened, and kids filed on to take their seats. I stepped up into the bus and took a seat on the opposite side, climbing up on my knees to look out the window. The sidewalk where Thomas Edison had been was empty.
I sat down, holding my lunch box in my lap, and was surprised to find myself crying.
“What’s wrong?” my sister asked. She had sat next to me and I hadn’t even noticed.
I looked up at her, but found that I couldn’t explain. Could it be that all the time Thomas Edison had spent chasing us, chasing me, was because he wanted a friend to play with, and didn’t know how? Was it possible for a creature to be so lost and alone that the only way it knew to love was through the teeth of its anger? These were thoughts too complex for me at the time, I only knew something had gone very wrong, and there was no getting it back. So I leaned my head against her arm, and wept until there was nothing left. I wept for my mom and my family, for myself, and for a lost and angry dog whose true name I’d never really know.
“Do you remember Thomas Edison?”
Den gives a little snort of air.
“I remember Thomas Edison was a jerk,” he says, and we both laugh.
Because he was. He really, really was.
Mom died a month later. It came much faster than expected. The doctor told us the scare the dog had given her had probably not contributed to her illness, but it didn’t matter much. She was gone, and we were left behind. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was left with a piece of her the others were thankfully spared, and my visits have confirmed that, which gives me some sense of peace.
My little Corolla sometimes dies the first time I start it these days, but this time it doesn’t. The little RPM gauge dips precariously low, and it sputters a bit, but it hangs on and I go putt-putt-putting off down and out of the cul-de-sac, leaving Den to get smaller and smaller as he waves goodbye from the foot of his driveway. I miss him already, kind of.
A scary moment as I am forced to stop my car at the end of the street. Luckily Den has gone back inside and doesn’t see me stopping there. The sudden pain in my belly nearly doubles me over, even sitting in my car.
“Mm. Nnnuh. Oh god.” I press my hands low on my belly and wait for it to subside. “Stop. Just stop.” Finally, mercifully, it fades, and I know it will be a while before another one. I hope so, anyway. They are more frequent now than they once were, and so strong they take my breath away sometimes. I’ve made it much longer than mom did, I’m older than she ever was, but it’s caught up to me in its own time. I don’t have long now.
Will Mom and Dad be waiting for me?
I like to think so. I so want to see them again, waiting there for me as I pass through the gate, arms out and nothing but welcoming smiles.
You know what’s funny? I’d like, or I hope, Thomas Edison is there too. He wouldn’t be angry anymore, not there, and never again. I’d kneel down, and hold his little face, teeth no longer bared in a snarl but drawn back in a smile, and I’d say, it’s okay, Thomas Edison. You’re a good doggy, and I don’t hate you anymore. All is forgiven.
All is forgiven.
Mom and Dad will wrap their arms around the two of us, and we’ll embrace and smile and laugh together in the warmth of an endless sunshine. We’ll feel no pain anymore, not my mother and not me, and not Thomas Edison either. We’ll never hurt again.
After another few precious moments, I pull away from the corner, turning right and heading for the freeway entrance that will take me up onto the ten and down the next stretch of my journey. I have more visits to make, more coffee to sip and more hands to hold before the end.
© 2017 by J. David Clarke