We combated our own boredom in Hardy with whatever we could. We packed for the anticipation of it, bringing card games, word puzzles, sketch pads, books. But I do recall stretches of suffocating lethargy. In part, this was a necessary part of growing up, and remains so, for every child. How we deal with it is what matters. In the afternoons or evenings we found the Cubs on WGN. Howard was a big Cubs fan, even though his loyalty should have fallen to the Cardinals, based on the location. I remember him saying he’d been a Cardinals fan in his youth, but he seemed to have switched allegiances the way same way Harry Caray did, trading one microphone for another. There were just the obligatory stretches of boredom, when grown-ups were napping, when the boys were golfing, when the blanket of humidity had kept us inside just a little too long.
“Why don’t you go across the streets and see the cats?” Mom would ask. “I’m sure Lorraine wouldn’t mind.”
My sisters and I looked wide-eyed at each other and shook our heads.
Across the street lived an elderly lady named Lorraine. An old maid, Grandma Bonnie says. Never married. Or, as Howard referred to her, “Looooorraine.” She was a short woman with black hair gone gray, a hint of lipstick below wrinkled cheeks. She befriended Bonnie and Howard, and would often sit outside with them on the front porch in the evenings. I’d met her several times, at different parts of the day. I only say that because I never once saw her outside in anything other than a nightgown and house shoes, a cat or two in her arms. Lorraine was just another character, another story from the small bit of Hardy that I knew. A kind lady, she was as nice as pie to us, but her attire, along with what seemed like hundreds of cats roaming her house, gave off vibes that she was a bit odd, and her dark, lonely house was a place we weren’t willing to go by ourselves. Often she would come over asking about one of her cats that had gone missing a few days back.
“Have you seen my little kitty?
“No, Lorraine, haven’t seen any cats t’day,” Howard would answer, not having the heart to reveal what had probably happened to a small cat that ventured into the surrounding forest. Story suggests she was a piano teacher. When the windows were open and the wind was right, Howard would hear her banging on the piano from across the street.
“Why don’tcha head over to Looooraine’s and teach her a few things, Bonnie,” he would joke at the crude sounds coming from next door.
Lorraine was also part of one of my favorite Howard tales.
The Stink Bush. That’s what Howard called it. A large bush that stood near the corner of their front porch. Nothing to write home about. Just a bush. About six feet tall and hearty. Apparently it wasn’t uncommon at sundown for Howard to move over behind the Stink Bush and let go a little flatulence. He and Grandma Bonnie were entertaining their nightgowned neighbor one evening when Howard moved over to relieve himself. Lorraine was intrigued.
“Whatcha doin’ over the, Howard.”
“Well, I’m just, uh, taking a look here at this bush,” he answered.
“What kinda bush is that?” she asked, standing up, walking over to him. Howard’s country boy upbringing, combined with his propensity to read and learn things, made him a man who shouldered a well-rounded world of knowledge. Grandma was already biting her knuckle, trying not to laugh. She knew the routine.
“Stink Bush,” he told Lorraine.
“Stink Bush? Well I never heard such a thing,” Lorraine said, her brow furrowed.
“Well, that’s not the o-fficial name, but I call it a Stink Bush. Has a ripe awful smell to it.”
“Really?” she asked, Grandma covering her face with her hands at the other end of the porch.
“See for yourself,” Howard said. Lorraine leaned forward, pressing her nose gently against the small branches and leaves. She jerked back and let out a grunt of disgust.
“Ugh,” she howled, covering her nose.
“See, I told ya,” Howard chuckled to himself. “Stink Bush.” Lorraine backed away quickly, scowling. Grandma was wiping the tears out of her eyes as her friend sat back down.
“Oh, my, goodness,” Lorraine was still groaning.
“Oh, I know,” Grandma said. “It’s pretty bad,” she told her neighbor, laughing like a schoolgirl.
Perhaps the funniest part of the story was that Lorraine would warn travelers for the next few years, offering cautionary advice to Grandma’s house guests, my folks included.
“Well, ya’ll have fun while you’re here,” she’d say. You just watch out for that bush over there,” pointing at the large plant. “It just smells somethin’ awful. What was that called again, Howard?”
“Stink Bush,” he would smile, hiding a laugh with his handkerchief.