During my childhood, Sour Sophie Morgan was The Enemy, and we were at war. We had always been at war. The war in which we were engaged had a timeless, always present sense about it, which made it a lot like grandfathers and bubble gum. It was so much a part of the way things were that we never stopped to wonder where it came from or why it was there. It just “was,” and we accepted it as such and went on with the business of doing battle. The problem was that Sour Sophie won every skirmish.
Sour Sophie was the only person in town who could consistently get the best of all of us. Even Mean Eddie. If Mean Eddie wrote chalk letters—as in “A,” “B,” and “C”; not as in “Dear Sophie, Why are you so Sour?”—Eddie wasn’t the brightest kid in town, just the meanest. And in my association with him, he never got so far as to actually write words. The alphabet was quite an accomplishment for him, and he usually misspelled that. But he loved to practice with chalk on the side‑walks of town, and if he wrote letters on the walk in front of Sour Sophie’s house, she would cause his entire supply of chalk to go bad. If he tried to retaliate by throwing rocks at her mail box, she would somehow keep his mail-order Sergeant Preston Secret Code Ring (with the special hidden compartment for carrying messages safely through the Yukon) from ever arriving.
Of course, it’s hard to believe now that Sour Sophie ever did those things, but we were convinced of it then. We were so certain of her powers that Mean Eddie would actually break down in tears over his helpless inability to get her without getting gotten in return. She was the only person I ever knew who could make Mean Eddie cry. And she was the only person who could make Cryin’ Sammy stop crying.
If Cryin’ Sammy tuned up in sight of her house, she would storm outside and stand on the edge of her yard with her fists on her hips and her feet spread apart, and stare him into silence. Her Glare was absolutely awesome. Flowers wilted before it; song birds were rendered eternally mute; large dogs would whimper and run—and we would too. Nobody could stand his or her ground when Sour Sophie turned on The Glare.
We never had any Rogue Elephants in my home town, except in the Tarzan films on Saturday afternoons, but if one had ever paid us a visit and rampaged through the neighborhood, I would have preferred to be behind a Glaring Sour Sophie than behind the charging bull elephant. The Glare was raw power in action.
You may be wondering by now, if she were all that bad, why didn’t we simply give her a wide berth and do our growing up elsewhere? Why not just avoid her; leave her alone; stay far away? Well, you can think this way because you didn’t grow up where I did. No place is “far away” from any place there. Every place is only “just down the road.” Besides that, the only decent plot of ground on which to carry out the obligations and duties of growing up was directly across the street from Sour Sophie’s house.
If we wanted to play baseball, that’s where we had to play baseball. If we wanted to play tag, or fireworks, or cowboys and Indians, that’s where we had to play them all. But playing those things in the vicinity of Sour Sophie Morgan extracted a high price. We lost a fortune in baseballs alone.
Everything hit over the center fielder’s head usually rolled across the street and into Sour Sophie’s yard. When that happened, it was gone for good. Sophie was fast to be three hundred years old. We didn’t have anyone who could match her in an open field race to the ball. We rotated the position of center fielder among all the kids in town, but we couldn’t find anyone who could outrun Sophie. She always got to the ball before we did. Or close enough. Sophie had the advantage of not actually having to reach the ball. Glaring distance would do.
Sophie’s Glare would bear down on us from half-a-lawn away. It would stop us cold, flip us around in mid-stride, and send us off at twice our approach speed. If we had ever been able to run to the ball as fast as we ran from it, we would have had no problems—and we all could have played for the Yankees when we grew up.
But it didn’t work out like that. As we shot away, Sour Sophie would shake a bony finger in the air and shout a sentence or two based on the theme of never having met anyone rotten enough to deserve children. Then, she would leisurely scoop up our ball and add it to her abundant collection.
One day, in the midst of all this, a little orphan girl moved into the house next door to Sour Sophie. She was about three years old. Her parents had been killed in a car wreck, and she had come to stay as a foster child with the family who lived by Sophie.
Our parents told us about the situation, and asked us to be nice to her. We knew they were wasting their words on us. We were nice to little kids. Sophie was the one they needed to address. And we knew we should have been talking to the little orphan girl. But she was only three years old, and there are some things you can’t translate down to a three-year-old.
“Sour,” for instance. How do you explain “sour” to a three-year-old? Some things have to be experienced in order to be understood, and we didn’t know how to talk to a three-year-old about things she had never encountered. So, she walked in on Sophie cold, and fresh for the kill.
We were trading comic books in the lot across the street, and watched transfixed as the little girl chased a butterfly into the middle of Sophie’s yard. “Uh oh,” said Mean Eddie.
The screen door to Sophie’s front porch opened and slammed shut in the same instant, with Sophie somehow pouring through without getting caught in the act. The butterfly saw her coming, shifted into warp-drive, and disappeared. Now it was just Sour Sophie and the little orphan girl.
“What are you doing in my yard?” screamed Sophie. And, without pausing for an answer, repeated, “What are you doing in my yard?”— getting louder with each word. I’m sure they heard her down at the train depot over the whistles of approaching locomotives. The little orphan girl heard her too, and started crying.
“Stop that crying!” Sophie yelled. “And get out of my yard!” The little girl cried louder, with tears streaming down her face. But she didn’t move, except to hold out her arms to Sophie.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Sophie yelled some more. “I said GET OFF OF MY YARD!!!” The little girl remained unmoving, crying, her arms lifted to Sophie.
Our hearts were pounding. Or, perhaps they had stopped. I don’t remember. I do remember not knowing what to do. I wanted to run, snatch up the child, and rescue her on the spot. Roy Rogers would have done that, or Gene Autry, but I didn’t dare. My friends and I just drew together in a tight little pack, hypnotized by the scene being acted out in front of us. We knew what was coming.
Sour Sophie shifted her feet, clinched her fists, placed them on her hips, positioned her chin, and launched, The Glare. The blood drained right out of our faces. The little girl kept crying, her arms out-stretched. Sophie kept Glaring. Eternity passed. No one moved. We were all frozen into our roles: glaring, pleading, watching.
“Look at that!” Cryin’ Sammy broke the silence with a whisper wrapped in amazement. I guess he noticed it first because he knew so much about crying. There was a tear on Sophie’s cheek. And that tear was followed by another, and another, and another, until Sour Sophie was sobbing right out loud, just like the little girl.
The Glare was gone. And Sophie bent down and picked up the little orphan girl, and hugged her tightly to herself, still crying. And eternity passed once again.
What were the secret sorrows being shared in that close embrace? What was the impact of anguish upon anguish? Of brokenness encountering brokenness? Of pain healing pain? What was the meaning of that moment for the two women at its center? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But I do know that in that moment the universe shifted, miracle happened, and lives were transformed forever. The future was radically altered. Nothing was the same again. And, something new came to life in the world.
After an interminable amount of time and tears, Sophie looked at the little girl and said, “How about a piece of cake?” Then she looked over at us and said, “You boys may as well come and have some too.”
Who can resist participating in the making of a miracle? Even Mean Eddie came along. We ate her cake, and drank her milk, and had a good time talking about anything any of us could think of to say. On our way out, Sophie gave us an old trash can with seventeen baseballs in it. We thanked her with relish and abounding gratitude. And, we never saw Sour Sophie again.