Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi and a little boy named Denny played together behind his house atop Highland Avenue. Suzi’s mother often brought her over for a visit, because her mommy, Wilma, and Denny’s mommy, Nancy, had been best of friends since high school, and they lived only one block away from one another even to this day.
On a particularly nice Tuesday in June, Suzi and her mommy got up early in the morning to have breakfast before getting ready to go to Denny’s house. They decided to have pancakes and maple syrup, which Suzi called ‘maple surple’ because it was fun to say. (She learned that from her granddaddy.) When they had finished eating and then scraped their plates into the kitchen garbage can and washed and rinsed them in the sink, Suzi’s mother reminded her to go wash her face and brush her teeth to get ready to go to Denny’s house.
“May I take Albert upstairs with me? Or do you need him to stay here in the kitchen and help you?” Suzi asked her mother that morning.
Albert was Suzi’s imaginary friend. He was a little boy her own age who went with her everywhere—even to school—and sometimes got her in trouble. When she was little, before she grew big enough to go to school, Suzi often talked to Albert out loud. But after she started first grade and some of the kids at school teased her about it, Suzi whispered to Albert, unless she forgot.
“You can take Albert upstairs with you. I won’t miss him,” her mother replied with a slight smile. But then she added, “I don’t want to hear any more sob stories about how you can’t find your hairbrush because Albert used it on the neighbor’s dog or how you can’t clean your teeth because Albert lost your toothbrush…again. I found it between the towels in the linen closet this time, you know.”
“We had better get on upstairs, Albert,” Suzi whispered to her imaginary friend.
Okey dokey, dominokey, Albert replied to Little Suzi. That was one of Albert’s favorite sayings. He also liked ‘easy peazy, lemon squeezy,’ and so did Little Suzi. At Denny’s house, he had already eaten his bowl of oatmeal and was getting ready to meet Little Suzi at the front door. First, he put on his black cowboy hat, then his red boots. After brushing his teeth, he went back into his room, pulled off his boots, and pulled on his jeans and tee-shirt, then put his boots back on. He rolled up the cuffs of his jeans like Roy Rogers so he looked like a real cowboy. Finally, he pulled his little rocking chair—the one from the foot of his bed where his mother read to him at night—out of his room and out onto the front porch. There he sat quietly humming the ‘Davy Crockett’ song under his breath—Daveeee, Daaaavy Crockett, King of the wild frontier—and looking at a picture book until Suzi arrived with her mother. He hoped Suzi would read it to him later, as she often did, because she had just graduated from first grade and could read out loud, but Denny was five and could read only a little.
When Denny saw Suzi and her mommy coming down the sidewalk, he jumped up, opened the screen door, and yelled inside to his mother to let her know that their best friends had finally arrived.
“They’re here, mommy…they’re here!” Denny hollered.
“OK, Denny, but you don’t have to holler, you know. I can hear you.”
Denny’s mother told him that exact same thing every time he yelled inside the house, but he always forgot when he was so excited to see Suzi. Denny and Suzi often played through the long morning, starting right after breakfast, while their mommies drank coffee and talked in the kitchen.
Because Suzi was older and could look out for him, Denny was allowed to play in the alleyway behind his house when she visited. A narrow gravel road ran down the alley and between the houses. This is where the white garbage truck as big as his house drove through once a week to pick up trash out of bent, rusty metal cans. Denny liked to wait on his back porch when it was time for the garbage men to arrive. He liked to watch them lift the heavy cans with their huge gloved hands, toss the trash into the back cavern of the truck, and then smash it all together with a loud crushing noise. Denny was amazed at how fast the men could empty all the trash cans waiting for them in the alley.
One of Denny’s chores was to carry the trash from his kitchen in the little can out to the big can in the alley. He had to do this two or three times a week to earn a quarter from his mommy for an allowance, which he used to buy bubble gum at the corner market—the one on 16th Street where he and Suzi would often go.
“I got my ‘lowance,” Denny told Suzi as soon as they got outside and started down the back stairs of his house toward the alley. “Wanna get some likrish?”
“No, I don’t like licorice,” Suzi replied. “Albert wants to know if we can get bubble gum instead?”
“Sure,” Denny told her proudly. Others may have had their doubts about Albert, but Denny believed Suzi’s friend was as real as sunshine.
So Suzi, Albert, and Denny pulled his little red wagon from under the back porch—in case they found any treasures on the way—and walked into the alley down toward the market. Just before they went inside the store, Denny stuck his little hand down in the pocket of his blue jeans to get his quarter. But, instead, he found only a toy plastic Indian (the kind with the full headdress and shooting a bow and arrow) and a single shiny penny. But Denny had forgotten to bring his twenty-five cents.
“Wait,” he told Suzi, “I forgot my quarter. We gotta go back.”
They all turned at once to go back to Denny’s house for the money to buy bubble gum. On the way, Albert noticed something interesting just beside the market, next to the garbage cans. He took hold of Suzi’s arm and pointed. Then he whispered an idea in Suzi’s ear:
See those bananas in the wooden crate? We might be able to sell those in the alley and get money for bubble gum. Then, Denny won’t have to use his quarter.
“Good idea, Albert,” Suzi agreed.
That’s what I said, ‘Bunny Bread’, Albert added. (He heard that on TV once and never forgot it, and Little Suzi chuckled to herself every time he said it.)
Suzi told Denny to help her pick up the crate of brown bananas and put them in his red wagon.
“Why are we taking these old ‘nanas, Suzi?” Denny asked her. “I thought we wanted bubble gums.”
“We do,” explained Suzi, “but Albert has a good idea to make some money so you can keep your quarter.”
“OK,” Denny replied happily.
So Denny and Suzi pulled their crate of bananas to the first house they came to in the alley, and Suzi knocked loudly on the back screen door.
“Yes?” A lady who looked a lot like Denny’s mommy answered from inside through the sun-lit screen.
But Suzi and Denny just stood there with the crate of bananas in the wagon between them. They had not thought about what to say to anyone who might answer their knock.
Tell her you have bananas for sale…cheap, Albert whispered.
“We have ‘nanas,” Suzi finally said to the lady. “Do you want to buy some for a nickel?”
The lady looked down at Suzi, then over at Denny. She studied them for a moment, then finally said, “No thank you,” and turned back inside her house. Suzi and Denny looked at each other but did not know what to think.
Maybe she doesn’t like bananas, Albert told Suzi. Let’s try the next house.
At the next house, a younger lady came to the door with a baby in her arms.
“We have ‘nanas,” Suzi told the lady. “Do you want to buy some for a nickel?”
But the baby started to cry before the lady said anything at all. She looked a little cross, then turned away and went back in her house without saying anything to Suzi or Denny. Confused, Suzi and Denny went back out to the alley with the wagon and tried to think what to do.
After a minute, Albert said to Suzi, What you need is a sob story.
“A sob story?” Suzi repeated out loud.
“What’s a sob story?” Denny asked Suzi.
“It’s a story that makes somebody feel sorry for you,” Little Suzi explained. “And so you don’t get in trouble.”
“Oh,” Denny replied quietly. Then after a moment, he asked, “Why do we want people to feel sorry for us?”
But Suzi was already walking toward the next house up the alley and didn’t hear Denny’s question.
“Hey, wait for the ‘nanas,” Denny called after Suzi as he pulled the heavy wagon behind him.
At the next house, a lady with a nice smile answered Suzi’s knock. First she looked at Suzi, then at the crate of brown bananas. Before Suzi could offer them for sale, though, the lady smiled big at Denny standing behind her and holding the wagon’s handle.
“I know you,” the lady said in a kindly way. “You’re Nancy’s little boy…Denny… from down the block. But I don’t know your little friend. Who are you?”
“I’m Suzi. My mommy is friends with his mommy.”
I think she was talking to me, Albert whispered in Suzi’s ear.
“Hmm,” the lady said as she looked askance at the two children, “and do your mommies know you’re here selling rotten bananas in the alley?”
Nope, you’re right. She’s definitely not talking to me, Albert whispered again.
“Oh, these ‘nanas aren’t rotten, ma’am; they’re just ripe,” Suzi assured the smiling lady while glaring at Albert.
“Well, I think you had better take those old bananas back where you got them,” the lady told the children as she was shutting the door. “I don’t think Denny’s mommy would want him selling rotten bananas to her neighbors, do you?”
You didn’t tell her the sob story, Albert reminded Suzi.
Suzi thought hard for a moment, then instructed Denny: “Next time, tell them your little sister is sick and needs cough drops. We are selling bananas to buy cough drops at the market. That’ll work!”
“OK,” Denny agreed without any question.
No one answered when the children knocked at the next two houses in the alley, and now they were getting nearer to Denny’s house. At the old grey house directly across the alley from Denny’s, they were recognized right away.
“Hello, Denny and Suzi,” a kindly older lady greeted them with a warm smile. She was a sweet older lady with grandchildren of her own, which is why all the children in the neighborhood called her ‘Granny Dear’—just the way her grandchildren did when they visited.
“We’re selling ‘nanas to get money for my little sister’s coughing drops ‘cause we’re poor, Granny Dear,” Denny said all at once.
Good,’ Albert told Suzi, Now we’re getting somewhere.
Granny Dear said nothing as she took in a long breath, squinted her eyes behind her spectacles, and peered down at the children as they stood holding the crate of old brown bananas between them.
“Your sister is sick, dear?” Granny asked softly. “Whatever is wrong with the baby?”
“She’s got the croup,” Denny offered, even though he did not know what the croup was. He had only heard his mother use that word when the baby couldn’t stop coughing.
“And where did those bananas come from, dear?” Granny asked Denny.
“From behind the market,” Denny offered as he pointed down the alleyway.
“Well, I want you two to take those rotten bananas and put them in my garbage can there in the alley,” Granny continued, “and then run on home. Mr. Pete at the market wouldn’t want you selling bananas that he threw out, I shouldn’t think.”
The children did as they were told, and, in the meantime, Granny Dear called on the phone to Denny’s mother: “I thought you would want to know, dear, that Denny and his little friend are over here at my house trying to sell some over-ripe bananas they picked up behind Pete’s market.”
“Well, we wondered why they were so long getting back from there this morning,” Denny’s mommy replied. “They were just going for candy, but you know how they are once they get outside playing.”
“Yes, dear, I know.”
Then Granny Dear hesitated for a moment, prompting Denny’s mother to ask, “Is there something else?”
“Well, dear, it’s just odd. Is the baby sick with the croup?”
“The croup? Why no, the baby’s not sick,” Denny’s mommy assured Granny. “Wherever did you get that idea?”
“It’s just that Denny and Little Suzi told me they were trying to sell those bananas to get cough medicine for the baby,” Granny informed her. “I know it sounds far-fetched, but I thought you might want to know.”
“I’m watching them out the back window,” Granny Dear continued, but by then Denny’s mommy was standing at the screen door with the curly cord of the wall phone in one hand and the baby in the other. She was calling to the children from the back porch.
“Did you throw those bananas into the trash like Granny Dear told you?”
Suzi’s mommy stepped outside with Denny’s mother so that they were now staring down the short flight of steps at the two little urchins below.
“Did you tell Granny Dear that you needed to sell her those bananas to get money for cough medicine for the baby!?” Denny’s mother asked.
How does she know about that already?! Albert exclaimed to Suzi.
“Yes, ma’am,” Denny confessed right away. “I’m sorry, but…”
“Well, that was a big tale you told, wasn’t it?” Denny’s mother continued.
“Yes, ma’am,” Denny said softly, staring at the ground below his feet and twisting one cowboy boot in the dirt.
“Well, then,” Denny’s mommy continued, “what have I told you about boys who tell stories that aren’t true?”
“They grow long tails and donkey ears?” Denny tried to recall.
“That’s right,” his mommy confirmed with a frown, “so now you’re grounded for taking Mr. Pete’s bananas without permission and for lying to Granny Dear.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Denny said sadly.
And, then, after his mommy and Suzi’s mommy went back inside, Denny turned to Suzi and asked, “What’s grounded?”
“It means you can’t go off the porch or play in the yard for the rest of the day,” Suzi informed Denny.
With that, Suzi grabbed Albert’s hand and turned back outside to play. But before she could make good their escape, the screen door swung open wide and Suzi’s mommy stepped back out on the porch from the kitchen holding a very large bowl.
“You can make yourself useful, young lady,” her mommy told Suzi as she put down the bowl of green beans next to Denny (who was already sitting slumped on the steps with his elbow on his knee, his chin in the palm of his hand, and his cowboy hat pulled low over his brow).
“If you work hard, you can get these string beans ready to cook by supper time.”
So Little Suzi and Albert—who couldn’t be any help at all, really—sat with Denny on the back porch of his house the rest of that warm summer day, stringing green beans and regretting their sob story.
Little girls and boys who make up sob stories
May end up stringing beans
And growing ears like a donkey!