by Alice Woodrome
The grape lady—that’s what we called Sadie Mullins before we knowed her name. She was old—real old. Sadie always had her snow-white hair up in a bun, and I never seen her exceptin’ she had an apron tied ‘round her bony middle. But she kept to herself so we dint see her much.
My big sister, Susie, and me walked past her stone house down on Deer Creek every school day. It was on the way to the main road where we’d catch the bus to our school in town. Her old house needed fixin’, but it fit her. People said she lived there her whole life—born there, even. Once we seen Sadie out front waterin' a plant by her door. She walked bent over, leaning on a walking stick. Everything she done was in slow motion.
A time or two we seen her tendin’ the grape vines what growed on an arbor and shaded the front of her house. Some kids said she made wine with her grapes, but them kids tole lots of stories ‘bout people, and only some of them was true. To Susie and me, she was just a cranky old lady who stood ‘tween us and the sweetest grapes we ever tasted.
The grapes on her arbor were fat and so dark they was almost black. We knowed they was sweet because sometimes Susie and me, we'd sneak a few when they got ripe. We'd eat as many as we could right there off the vine. When we heard the door open, we'd grab a handful and run off. Not that we was scared of the grape lady or nothin’; she never coulda caught us. But we heard her hollerin’ at us to stop as we ran away. I felt a little bad for eatin’ her grapes, but they was just so sweet.
Susie said we was savin’ them from becomin’ wine and so we was really helpin’ the grape lady, 'cause everybody knows drinkin’ wine’s a sin. Susie had a way of explainin’ things.
One day Susie and me was doin’ like we always done when the grapes was ready to eat. I just put a big grape in my mouth, its juice burstin’ so sweet it almost hurt. That’s when I heard the grape lady right behind us. She'd been ‘round the corner of the old house and not inside this time, so we dint see her creepin’ up. She stood twixt us and the road with that walkin’ stick pointed straight at my nose. We could of got away quick as a bunny, but she stopped us by callin’ out, "Shall I tell your mama you been stealin’ from me?"
I swallowed the grape even though it wasn't hardly chewed. "Oh, no, please ma'am, we're awful sorry," I said. "We dint think you'd mind us tastin’ yer grapes." I knowed she wasn’t fooled even fore she said so, but bein’ caught red-handed like that sort of threw me.
"Ya think lyin’ fixes thievin’?”
We just hanged our heads. "No, ma'am,” we both said.
She put one hand on her hip and squinted at us. “I’m sure your mama won’t think so.”
Mama would be mad as a hornet if she knowed what we done—specially about the lyin’. Mama dint abide none of that, and we’d be lucky if all we got was a lickin’.
“Please don’t tell Mama,” Susie said. “We promise we won’t never do it again.”
“A promise won’t make it right, will it? The old lady said. “There’s still the stolen grapes. Ya can’t give ‘em back, can ya?”
She had us there. “No, ma’am.” Susie and me looked at the ground again.
“I suppose you could pay for them.”
Pay for ‘em? We didn’t have no money to pay for all the grapes we been stealin’. I looked at Susie. She was about to cry.
“I might consider not tellin’ your mama on one condition,” the grape lady said. “You can work to pay for the fruit you stole and we’ll be even. Got me a garden patch out back that needs weedin’. If you do a good job, that might just make us square.”
We worked real hard in that garden, Susie and me, so the grape lady wouldn't tell Mama what we done. She brought us out sweet tea and sat in a lawn chair to watch, tellin’ us all about when she was a young’un like us. She used to chase lightnin’ bugs and put ‘em in a mason jar just like we did. I liked the story ‘bout catchin’ crawdads down at the creek and boilin' ‘em up her own self ‘till they was red.
When I tole her we wasn’t loud to turn on the cookstove, she said her mama died when she was ten. She had to quit goin’ to school then to take care of her pa and their garden. We learnt a lot about Sadie Mullins ‘sides her name when we was pulling weeds. She’d been livin' in that house all by her lonesome ever since her pa died. Dint never have a mister of her own.
She tole Susie and me that if'n we asked, she would’ve let us eat them grapes anytime we was wantin’ to and she wouldn’t make us pull no weeds to pay for'm. She even sent a pint of grape jelly home with us to give to Mama.