Shirley McCurly lived along Back Ridge Road, about a half mile from our farm. Her double-wide trailer was parked in a pine grove on a piece of land that once belonged to my great grandparents Miles and Millie Taylor. According to Dad, the attractive dirty blonde didn’t need a husband to feel secure living on Stone Creek Ridge, far away from the lights of town, high in the clouds where the nights were dark like molasses. She lived down in the holler alone.
My father explained why Shirley was so pretty and not taken. “Shirley is a flower girl. She is a hippy chick. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was a peace activist too. Girls like her like living in the country,” Dad explained. “They’re wild like the wind.”
Her hair was as fresh as cut hay drying in the sun, sparkling like strings of gold. She had some ‘big jugs’ according to Dad and she was still ‘wet behind the ears’. Mom didn’t say much about Shirley. She thought it was brave of her to live in a trailer parked in the dark of the woods. She didn’t have the protection of a man at night. How creepy. Homes were miles away and the dark open spaces between porch lights seemed eternal. Mom was only sixteen herself and understood how vulnerable a girl could feel in the sticks, especially when Huntington State Penitentiary was just miles away. If a convict happened to escape, the cover of the heavily wooded ridge would make for an easy escape route. The nearest town on the other side of Stone Creek Ridge was State College, and that was 50 miles of rugged wilderness away.
Mom’s pregnancy with me was nerve wracking, especially when Dad was late coming home from work. There she was, pregnant again and wondering where he was or who he might be with. She had nothing to do but watch a snowy reception of the only local television broadcast– CBS out of Altoona. The power lines outside prevented us from receiving decent television. She turned on a radio about the size of a brown shoe box and listened to an AM station, hoping not to hear news of an escaped convict and wondering where the hell Dad was.
He stumbled in late one night, as usual. I was moving inside her and it was hard for her to sleep again. Dad was snoring loudly next to her. After hearing him near, finally I stopped moving about for her. She got up for a drink of water and looked out the kitchen window in the direction of an apple tree with a tree house recently built upon its branches. She thought she saw Esther, her mother-in-law, walking around the farm, checking on her garden and watching out for deer. It was routine to hear a gun go off in the middle of the night. It would awake both Mom and me. Esther shot deer all the time. She hated it when they ate her roses, and would often walk around in the dark of night, keeping an eye on things.
Mom thought nothing of it and went back to bed and tried to go back to sleep. I quickly settled in after hearing Dad breathe again. A shadow passed in the doorway separating the master bedroom from the kitchen. She thought she may be imagining things. She remained very still and closed her eyes. When she reopened them, the dark figure was standing next to my father on the other side of the bed. She blinked heavily to be sure she just wasn’t pregnant and imagining things. The tall dark figure reached out to touch Dad’s head.
“Barry, wake up!” Mom cried.
He immediately sat up and grabbed the shot gun that the couple kept in the corner of the bedroom next wooden dresser with a huge mirror attached to it. Dad flicked on the light. The shadow walked into the wall and disappeared.
Mom never understood how anyone could sleep alone like Esther and Shirley did on Stone Creek Ridge, especially after seeing a ghost that night.
Mom called Shirley a ‘gas ass’ one day after she drove too fast out the lane. The speed demon stirred up dust from the road and dirtied the sheets Mom had outside on a clothesline to dry.
Dad got a twinkle in his eyes when she sped by in her light- blue Punch Bug, beeping a duck-sounding horn at us. Ridge Road turned into a horizontal brown funnel cloud the moment she sped by. Dust was everywhere. Mom shook her head in disbelief and slammed a clothespin into a bag made from a hanger and a blouse that had been cut off and sewn at the bottom, serving as a hanging haversack for wooden clothes pins.
“Oh, he’s so cute,” Shirley said to my father the moment she saw me up close. Finally I got to meet the lady in the beetle car in person. We were in the produce section at the Country Garden Market and were supposed to pick up a loaf of bread and bring our asses right back home. Mom wanted us to return and she said to my father–‘no pissin’ around’.
Dad rubbed my head like a hand kneading a ball of dough when Shirley complimented me.
“I’m Barry,” my father said nervously. “And this is my son, Charlie.”
Even though I was only five, I knew something smelled fishy. I went into bars with Dad all the time. I knew all the moves that hippie- chicks like Shirley used on guys. I knew what she was after– a pop.
Everyone loves pop. Dad bought girls soft drinks all the time when he went drinking at the bars. Most women in town thought I was cute. They liked rubbing my hair as I sat in a booth with my bother Bill, waiting for Dad to finish drinking. It was like I was their kid too or something. Because I still had tendencies of wetting my bed, I was permitted only one pop at the bars. Pretty girls like Shirley were offered as many as they could swallow.
Shirley picked over a pile of cantaloupes and tossed one into her shopping basket while explaining to my father that she was our new neighbor and that she had just moved out the road from our place.
“Yes, I know,” Dad replied. “I see you driving by all the time. Lou and I have been married for six years already,” Dad said while pointing his finger at the top of my head, giving her the same look he gave to flirting girls at the bars when they were acting ‘fresh’ with my father.
I knew what they were up to.
“Hey Dad, I’m going to tell Mom that we went into a bar today and that you are talking to women again,” I said cute and casually. Shirley took her fingers out of my hair that moment. Her face turned bright red and she quickly ran her fingers through her own hair. I could smell the strawberry conditioner as she fluffed her long brunette strands in Dad’s face.
Dad bought me a big bottle of Wible’s orange soda in the Country Garden Market that day and we didn’t even have to stop at the bar on our way back home. Dad looked petrified as he drove along Route 22 towards home.
When we got back to the house, I told my mother that Shirley was having stuffed peppers for supper and I wanted to know if I could eat at her house that night.
Mom was never threatened by Shirley or another woman from that moment on. Shirley even baby sat me on occasion. Even though I was only six or seven, it was safe enough for me to walk all alone down Old Ridge Road to see what Shirley was doing on warm summer afternoons when I was all alone up on the ridge, while Bill was in Kindergarten.
I mistakenly told Mom that I was mad at Shirley for not letting me take a bath at her house. Bill and I took baths together all the time. It seemed natural to me. I was like a little brother to the girl who lived all by herself up there anyway.
“Hey Shirley, are you home?”
“Come on in, Charlie” Shirley shouted from her bathtub. Her screen door was open. Rarely did people living in the country lock their doors even though there was a correctional institution in Huntingdon.
I walked from her kitchen, through the living room and down a red carpeted all way, all the way to the back of the trailer where her bathroom was, looking for her. She was in the tub with water drawn all the way to the top. It looked like a pond to me. Mom never let Bill and me fill- up our tub with so much water. We had a well that almost always seemed in danger of going dry.
“No, I’m getting out now. Will you hand me that towel?” She asked.
“Don’t let the water out,” I pleaded.
“It’s dirty. You don’t want to get into this.”
Mom didn’t listen to the entire story. She immediately stormed down Ridge Road to give Shirley a piece of her mind. I tried keeping up with her. She was stomping and dust was flying everywhere– “Don’t you ever show yourself naked to my son again!” Mom screamed. I thought she was going to punch Shirley in the face.
I had no idea what they were fighting about. Mom acted as if I were Dad going into a bar.