I felt like someone’s hands were around my throat, strangling me so I couldn’t tell Old Man Wessenfeld that I thought his dogs should be kept in the yard and not be allowed out to chase me every day to school. He still stood at the gate, and I still stood on his driveway, and we still stared at each other. I don’t know what would have happened if Mrs. Wessenfeld hadn’t come out just then.
“Why, isn’t it Frances Reed, Mary’s daughter? My, it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you!” She stood on the bottom step of their porch, drying her hands on a dish towel.
“Hi, Mrs. Wessenfeld.” I felt somewhat embarrassed, like I should have explained why I hadn’t been around in a while, that I hadn’t joined the Girl Scouts this year, so I didn’t have to sell any cookies. Instead, I shifted from foot to foot, watching the dogs dance around her, whining like dogs do for attention.
“George, open the gate for Frances so that she can come inside. I’ve just made some fresh lemonade and have an extra cold glass on hand. Come along and let’s chat for a spell.”
I was terrified when Mr. Wessenfeld unlatched the gate and it swung open. The dogs, yipping and scuffling, made a dash for me. I braced myself, expecting to be eaten alive.
The Lab plowed into my legs, just about knocking me to the ground. The cocker spaniel sniffed my shoes, while the golden retriever nudged my hand, as if to make me pet him.
“You see, young lady,” Mr. Wessenfeld adjusted his thick, black-framed glasses, while pointing to each dog, “Aramis, Porthos, and Athos won’t hurt you.”
I looked right at Mr. Wessenfeld. He might have thought highly of his precious pets, but I certainly didn’t. And I didn’t think much of their names coming from such noble characters. “The Three Musketeers? You can’t be serious!”
“My goodness, no!” chirped Mrs. Wessenfeld, flipping the dish towel over her shoulder. “I really think they’re more like the Three Stooges!”
That certainly fit the image I had of them lined up at the fence, looking kind of goofy. I started giggling, which made them even more playful around me, so much so that I couldn’t move without pushing them out of the way as I walked. Finally, I just stopped and petted each one, keeping my face away from the flapping tongue of the big, black Lab, Aramis, as he tried to lick me. Porthos, the cocker spaniel, brought over a ball, which I threw, and all three dashed for it, leaving me just enough time to scoot by Mr. Wessenfeld and through the front door where I met Mrs. Wessenfeld. She handed me a glass of iced lemonade.
I almost sucked it all down, but I remembered how annoyed my mom got with me when I did that, so I took about four gulps to finish it. I gave Mrs. Wessenfeld back the glass. “Thank you.”
“Come into the kitchen and I’ll pour you and George another glass.”
Mr. Wessenfeld followed me as I followed Mrs. Wessenfeld. I was reminded of a scene from Heidi, probably because of the happy feeling I got when I walked into the sunny kitchen with big windows lined in planters of blooming marigolds, pansies, and impatiens and home-baked bread right out of the oven.
“Wednesday’s baking day for me. I’ll send you home with a loaf.” Mrs. Wessenfeld dusted off a loaf of white bread, sprinkling crumbs along the counter, and then turned around. She sort of chuckled, her hands on her hips, her face soft with a big smile. “I can’t get out of the habit of making enough to feed a family of six, although it’s just George and I nowadays.” She tilted her head, her eyes twinkling. “If you don’t count the dogs, that is. And they’re just like children in a lot of ways, but we don’t let them eat at our table.”
I thought she was funny and warm and kind. She looked a whole lot different than my granny, taller and plumper, but she felt like the kind of grandmother every kid would like to have. I didn’t know much about grandfathers, but I just couldn’t imagine why she had married such an old grouch like George. However, I didn’t say anything about that. “I came over to ask if you’d keep the Three Musketeers in the yard on school mornings. They chase me, sometimes all the way to Saint Mary’s.”
Mr. Wessenfeld sat down in a bar stool at the far end of the kitchen counter, laying his book cover up so that I sneaked a peek at the title, Mything Persons. It took me totally by surprise that he, of all people, would be interested in a science fantasy book, especially a series that dealt with magicians, dragons, and demons and had puns for chapter headings. For a moment, I forgot that I didn’t like Mr. Wessenfeld.
“Did you know that Mything books are a whole series?” I sort of blurted it out, catching Mr. Wessenfeld off guard. He jerked upright in his seat, picked up the book, looked at the cover, then me.
“Didn’t give it much thought. My grandson gave me some books to read when I was in the hospital, and I’m just getting around to this one.”
“You should read them in sequence, you know. It makes more sense that way, and you can keep track of all the new characters and past events,” I pointed out logically enough.
He looked at me like I had spoken about an R-rated movie that a kid shouldn’t know anything about. “So you say.”
I thought it too bad Mrs. Wessenfeld had to live with such a grump. She crunched foil around the loaf of bread and set it in front of me where I stood by the end of the counter. “Now, don’t forget to take this home, Fran. You must read a lot; you seem to know so much about books.” Her voice had a nice lilt to it as she spoke.
“Oh, yeah, I do.” I nodded, working an end of pinched foil back and forth. “Eight, nine books in a week. Sometimes more, especially in the summer, if my mom doesn’t have chores for me to do.”
“Goodness! You and George! You two should have a lot to talk about! He reads all the time, more now that he’s recuperating from his stroke. Pretty soon, though, he’ll be back to his routine and exercising the dogs regularly.” She stopped and tapped her finger alongside of her face. “Oh, that’s right, you’ve come to talk about a problem with our intrepid trio.”
Mr. Wessenfeld interrupted her. “I don’t see she has one. The dogs won’t bother her now that they know her.” He almost smiled at me, I thought.
I hadn’t thought of that. It seemed I didn’t have a problem, anymore. I also didn’t have anything else to say.
Mrs. Wessenfeld steepled her fingers, pressing them against her lips, as if she was lost for a moment in her thoughts, before she spoke. “Fran, I just thought of something.” She paused and looked at me.
I knew that adult-look, and it gave me the shivers. I was being sized up by Mrs. Wessenfeld, but I was curious to know what her scheme was all about.
“Do you think your parents would let you have a part-time job after school?” She arched an eyebrow, knowing full well she’d snagged my attention. “If you would like a job, how about exercising the dogs on leashes?”
“You know,” Mr. Wessenfeld cleared his throat, “it’d be like you were the caboose behind the
I liked that, the way he put it. I’d probably still huff and puff, but at least I’d get paid for it, and I’d be running behind the bully dogs instead of in front of them. Although, now, it was kind of hard to think of the Three Musketeers as mean. Really, they were only silly dogs that needed to let off some energy.
“I’m sure my mom wouldn’t mind if I did it after school. Except for Tuesdays, and I could do it later, after my piano lesson.”
Mr. Wessenfeld made a sour face, which made him look sort of like a dried-out apple. “Why is it all children take piano lessons? It’s not the only instrument worth playing.”
Mrs. Wessenfeld clucked her tongue. “Don’t mind George. He’s played the trumpet since he was nine but couldn’t get one of our four kids interested. But he still plays in a quartet at least once a month at the Elks.”
I mean, could you believe this? I sort of laughed and shook my head. “I play the trumpet, too. Miss Kray says I’ll make first chair before school’s out, the first time a girl’s done that!” I know it sounded like bragging, but it was the truth.
“Well,” groused Mr. Wessenfeld, “you have more sense than any of my own children or grandchildren. But I like you anyway.” He waited to see if I’d laugh, which I didn’t. But I smiled.
“You have any of Asprin’s other books?” he asked, rather nicely for him, I thought.
“Yeah!” I nodded, so hard I almost gave myself whiplash. “I’ve got the whole series.”
He stood up, book in hand, and started walking towards what looked like his den. “Tell you what, Franny old girl. Bring me the first two, and maybe we can trade some books from library. Deal?”
“Deal, Mr. Wessenfeld.” I scooped up the still-warm loaf of bread, matching smiles with Mrs. Wessenfeld. “Thanks. I’ll ask my mom about walking the dogs and let you know.”
She walked me to the door, where three wet noses instantly appeared in the opening. “Or just come by after school tomorrow,” she suggested.
When I stepped outside, I immediately became tangled up in wanna-be playmates. I kept the bread high over my head as I made my way to the gate, stopping to scratch first Athos behind the ear, then Porthos, and giving an extra minute to Aramis because he laid his big, black head in my hand with a huge, contented sigh before he let me go on my way.