“Parsonville Tales” is a collection of short stories about a fictional small town in Michigan. The tales are about the place, but mostly about its people.
Let me introduce you to Parsonville.
Now Parsonville isn’t a strange place. I haven’t been many places, but I bet they’re all pretty much the same. Different names, different buildings. But I think people live and die. Cheat. Put on airs. Get along. Care about things or people for a time. Then move on and make room for more.
I get around and watch what’s happening here. I walk a lot. There’s a wide main street with two story red clay brick buildings. The first floors have businesses. The bakery, Johnie’s Hardware, Alcott’s Real Estate, Frye’s Grocery, the dry goods store, and the appliance store owned by the folks who live over in Birch Creek, the Blantons. There’s Red’s Bar which does a pretty good business. And Chuck and Hilda’s Diner, which is the real meeting place in town. There’s the volunteer firehouse, the liquor store with the pool hall in the back. Up above the businesses are apartments, usually pretty cheap rent.
There’s a gas station at each end of downtown. Cy’s Mobile, which is the seedy one, and William’s Service, which is cleaner and where the fussy folks get their cars fixed. Out west across the railroad tracks is where the lumberyard is. Right across the street is the grain elevator, but that doesn’t get used so much in the past few years. Most folks gave up on farming full time and do other things. Lots of them work in the big car factories in Flint or Saginaw. Everybody has a garden and they can up tomatoes and apple sauce for the winter. The orchards are doing okay. The blueberry farm’s been doing good too. People drive from other towns to pick during the season. But real farming is pretty much gone.
They built the new bank out west of the tracks on Main street and down a little farther they put in a bowling alley and bar.
Parsonville is laid out pretty straight. Main Street runs east and west. Reynolds Road, which they call Oak Street inside the village limits, runs north and south and is the second biggest street after Main. The rest of it is like a grid, laid out straight. There’s only one real curve in town. That’s where old Mrs. Proctor wouldn’t move or sell her land, so they built the street around the house. There are four churches, the Baptist, the Methodist, the Lutheran, and the Free Methodist. There aren’t many Catholics and they drive over to White Bank to the little stone church there.
Most of the houses are frame. Some are sided in insel-brick, that tar paper siding that looks like brick, but most are painted. There are a couple of houses made from the same red brick as the buildings downtown. They’re made from the clay which used to come from the pit over in Riverbend.
Out at the east end of town is the big river. There’s another smaller river three miles west, but we call it a “crick.” Just over the big river bridge and up a little hill is the graveyard. It’s a pretty little graveyard. On Memorial Day they have a parade that ends there. The American Legion fires a salute and after taps a preacher gives a nice benediction. then everyone goes off for a picnic of potato salad and hot dogs.
The woods grow close on two sides of the graveyard. Main Street and the river make up the other sides. Every year they cut back into the woods a bit more to make room for a few more graves. They keep it pretty nice in the summer. I like to walk out there. It’s quiet. Almost no one comes out on summer days, and I can think about Parsonville and its stories.
That brings me to Grubb. Parsonville is proud of its cemetery, but townsfolk don’t think you should go out there at night. Superstition. With the river fog and the big tree branches hanging down, it’s spooky at night, downright scary to most in town.
Now, you should know that fishing is a big thing here. Kids grown up with a cane pole, or a new spinning rod and tales of big bass or pike that got away. The fishing gear has got fancier over the years, but most folks still use worms for bait. angle worms for pan fish. Night crawlers for the bigger fish. anyone can buy bait but Parsonville people like to get their own. They dig the worms. And after a rain, or after watering the lawn, they go out at night and catch as many crawlers as they can. Night crawlers are smart devils. You catch them by sneaking around on your hands and knees with a flashlight. When you see one partially out of his hole, you put down the light very carefully. They you pounce quick and pin him down with one hand. They you grab hold with the other hand and try to pull him out. You got to be careful not to pull too hard or you’ll break him in half. And half a crawler just won’t do when you’re after big fish.
If you walk around at night after a rain you can hear neighbors saying, “How’d ya do?”
“I got some good ones, how about you?”
Now, Grubb was a real fisherman. But he lived over on the west side of town in an insel-brick covered three room house with his wife and four kids. They were pretty poor and fishing kept food on the table. But Grubb didn’t have a real lawn where he could catch crawlers. When it rained he’d get his younger boy, pile in his old Rambler, and drive over to the streets where the houses had proper lawns. He’d march right up to their doors at nine thirty or so on a summer night and ask if he and the boy could look for crawlers. Folks didn’t want to seem mean, so they let him look. but they would talk at Chuck ‘n Hilda’s diner about how Grubb didn’t have any shame. Word got around of course, and Grubb being a proud man, stopped asking so often to look for crawlers on the nice folks’ lawns. But he had to have them. You can’t reason with a force like that. So Grubb took to hunting for bait out at the graveyard. I like to walk out by the river at night sometimes and I was the first to see Grubb’s car out there and the flashlights bobbing around in the mists among the gravestones.
Folks liked Grubb. he was a hard worker even though he didn’t have much. And they liked his kids, especially the youngest boy, who was about twelve then. But there was something about being in the graveyard night catching crawlers that got to them.
When Grubb first started out they just sort of grumbled among themselves. “Did ya hear about Grubb? He’s getting crawlers at night in the graveyard.”
“I heard. Can’t believe it. What next?”
“He don’t live too well, and he’s always tried to do right by his kids, but I just don’t understand this.”
“Yeah. And I don’t think it’s right to take that boy out there at night. Why, he’ll have nightmares about ghosts.”
I’ve told you I know this town pretty well. I knew what would happen. First, folks just talked abut it at the gas stations and the diner and the bar. The church ladies gossiped about it at their luncheons. Pretty soon there was a committee going to have someone talk with Grubb and get him out of the graveyard. Widow Belkins, who laid her husband Fred to rest there just last year, said she thought Fred would roll over in his grave if he knew. Others said that Mrs. Buell should go talk to Grubb privately because she knew the family and they liked her. Mrs. Buell stood up tall as usual. She said she didn’t see any problems with getting crawlers out there, and that Fred Belkins never rolled over for anything in his life and assumed he wouldn’t in death. No one else wanted to talk to Grubb, so they decided it must be against the law. Mrs. Belkins and Sarah Blume, who was on the school board and said she had a duty to protect young boys, went to the police chief. The Chief, Adam Beane, said the graveyard was a public property and he didn’t think he could do a thing about it if Grubb didn’t hurt anything. The women argued that Grubb was disturbing the peace, of the living and the dead. And besides, they said he was hurting the character of the boy.
While the committee was rounding up support for some legal action, the jokes started.
“Well, Grubb’s right.” someone said. “Graveyard’s a good place for worms. They got lots to eat.
“Want some creepy crawlers?”
“Why Grubb gets them worms at night, but next day, when he goes to fish with ‘em they’re gone. Guess they’re ghost crawlers.”
The town got all excited about Grubb. They started taking sides. Some folks said the people with nice lawns should invite Grubb to their places. “Why that would be the charitable thing to do.”
“Why don’t we take up a collection and give him the money to buy some worms?”
“No, that’s not right. A good man should not have to take charity.”
“Why doesn’t Chief Beane just tell him to stay out of there? Then this would be all over.”
Well, the fuss about the graveyard and Grubb got to a point where even I didn’t know how it would turn out. It was getting pretty hot. But knowing this town I should have been able to figure it out.
The kids started picking on the young Grubb boy. His older brothers and sister heard the stories and they told Mrs. Grubb. Now, she wasn’t a very strong woman. She couldn’t bear the thought of the whole town talking about he family. She was in tears when she begged Grubb not to go back to the graveyard for crawlers. The boy, who was already showing a lot of character said he didn’t mind. He said he’d gotten kind of used to the graveyard. And besides, he said, it gave him bragging rights over the other kids who were too chicken to go out there at night.
That argument almost convinced Grubb. And, as I said, he was proud and didn’t want to give up a good thing. No one else ever competed for the crawlers out there and he got some real fat ones. But Mrs. Grubb begged him. and then Mrs. Buell called him up. She said that any time Grubb wanted to look for crawlers he and the boy could come to her lawn. Why, she’d even call him when she’d been sprinkling. She said this whole thing had gone too far. and she told him she lived closer to the Grubb’s than the graveyard so they wouldn’t have to travel so far. Finally, Grubb agreed.
After that, you could see Grubb’s Rambler at the Buell’s on rainy summer nights. Two flashlights bobbing around in the dark. Grubb telling the boy to “Quiet down. The worms will hear you!” Soon they’d have a can full of crawlers for the bass the next day.
If you saw anything in the graveyard at night after that it was teenage vandals or Chief Beane checking on things. Or, if you believe some folks, the ghost of the :Graveyard Crawlers.”