“Look, looky there,” Lipinski whispered pointing at the edge of the overgrown forest. “That there’s one of Mary’s old cats, if I don’t miss my guess. Yep, old she-money-cat, prob’ly got herself another nest o’ kittens back there somewheres.”
Sure enough, a scraggly-looking calico sat dejectedly at the edge of the woods.
One of us had to ask it, so it might as well have been me. “Who’s Mary?”
The old man shook his head.
“Why Mary was the saddest child the Lord seen fit to put on his good, green earth,” he said.
“Reverend Randolf Kempell’s daughter. Reverend Randy, he was the preacher here—oh—a couple, five, six years ago, maybe.”
“Before Reverend Willy?” Tommy finally piped in.
“Long before Reverend Willy. Seen a couple two, three, preachers come and go since Reverend Randy. Never in all my born days did I ever see a preacher-man with the most stinkingest run of bad luck as Reverend Randy had. Man musta been born under a dark cloud or somethin.”
“What happened to him?” Tommy was getting into the story now, as were we all.
“Went somewheres else after Mary died. Died young, she did. No more’n twelve er thirteen. Buried her right down there close to the woods where she used to play. Man wouldn’t even let me help with the digging. Said he had to do it hisself.
“That Evelyn, Randy’s wife, they say she was a real looker before the disease took hold. But I seen her wid my own eyes the day Reverend Randy drove her and hisself off in that old rattletrap Ford of his. Disease had took right good hold of her by then, yes-sir-EE, right good hold!”
“Cancer?” Tommy prompted, looking smug.
“Naw, tweren’t cancer. Cancer’d been a sight kinder to Evelyn than this disease was. They called it Hansen’s Disease and said it was a might rare. If you ask me, woman had leprosy, clear and simple.”
“Leprosy?” Wayne said, barely breathing. We’d all heard about the Lepers in our Sunday School Classes, and although I don’t think any of us actually knew anything about the disease, later we all agreed that it was bad news.
“Mary caught the disease from her mother, didn’t she?” Tommy had that smug-know-it-all look on his face again, like he thought he was smarter than your average kid.
“Now hold on there,” the old man said looking hastily around. “Never said nothing of the sort. Don’t go stickin words into this old man’s mouth!”
Tommy shut his yap real quick.
“Reverend Randy, he made it known from the start that Evelyn’s disease weren’t catchy. Cripes, the whole town’d blown a gasket if they’d a thought it was catchy. Since Randy lived with her and never come down with it hisself, we just naturally took his word on it — him being a preacher and all.
“You see the disease already had a right good hold over Evelyn by the time anyone knew Mary was expected. All the doctors said the baby wouldn’t live any how. But that Mary, she was a little scrapper from the start. You see, the poor little thing didn’t know she had no business being born. She just came right ahead into this world just like she was meant to be here. Such a sad little thing. Born right around the same time as my little Bobby."
“Mind you, she weren’t ugly enough to send the nurses screaming for cover. But, sure enough, Evelyn’s disease had worked its way into little Mary. Nine whole months worth of damage. I’ll never forget that first sight of her.”
I wanted to know, but then I didn’t. Finally I had to ask the question that nobody else seemed to want to ask. “What was wrong with her?”
Old Man Lipinski shook his head sadly. Just when I thought he wasn’t going to tell us, he cleared his throat, hawked another wad into that poor excuse for a handkerchief and went on. “Seems everything was wrong with poor Mary. Bad heart, bad lungs, crooked spine—those were things wrong on the insides of her. On the outside, she was wrong too. Looked like the good Lord never quite got around to putting the finishing touches on the poor little thing. No eyebrows, ears as big and wrinkled as an old man’s, and born wid a full set o’ teeth and a steam-shovel of a big mouth to carry them around in. The worse thing to look at about her was that she had no nose. Just two little bullet holes sitting there smack in the middle of her poor face. Like as not, with no nose to hold stuff back, runners of snot usually had a way of working down from them holes. Throw in a pair of heavy glasses for her bad eyes—and that was Mary.”
None of us could breathe.
Nobody said another word. We just kept looking at each other. Old Mr. Lipinski sure had painted me a grim picture of Mary Kempell.
“Good natured she was until the teasing got to her.” Lipinski went on. He was looking right into Wayne’s horrified face as he continued the morbid tale.
“I guess a body can only take so much teasing. Reverend Randy had to take her out of school after she clawed the tar outa one of them little Jamros girls from Town Crest. It seemed the little girl had made up a teasing kind of jingle about her that Mary didn’t much care for. Took more than twenty stitches to close the little Jamros girl’s face up after Mary and her cats was done with her.”