“I wish ya didn’t have to get a job, is all.”
“It’s all right, Dad, I don’t mind. I wanna help. Besides, we gotta think a Mikey.” Ellen Johnson looked at her over-sized brother, sitting on the living room floor. Humming tunelessly and rocking a bit, he was assembling their vacuum cleaner, again. He was at his favorite part: replacing the brush roller and belt. He watched with satisfaction as the roller turned under the exacting influence of the belt and began to reattach the cover plate.
When Ellen was three, their mother had realized that five year old Mikey was never gonna be right. Gossip said she ran away with a travelling salesman, but nobody knew, really. She didn’t leave a note. Ellen’s Dad got up one morning, and his wife was gone. Ellen couldn’t remember her mother, but she knew for sure that life with Mikey was hard. In the forties, nobody knew if there was a name for what ailed him, but it didn’t matter. He was theirs. Doctors had pushed Mr. Johnson for years to put the boy in a home, but he wouldn’t have it. He had confided to a friend, “I think them doctors just don’t wanna take care of ‘im. Don’t know what to do with’ im. Want a tough case out a their hair. Well, I ain’t. Me and Ellie can take care a him, just fine. He can read and write, he can look at anything mechanical, sees how it works, can take it apart, put it back together, fixed.”
Now, Ellen was 20. Her brother, still a child, was 22. Their Dad was still working, but getting older, and it was up to her now to try and take care of them all. Mr. Johnson worked at the pickle factory in Charlestown, New York and there was an opening in the office. They needed a new office girl, and Ellen got the job. Only trouble was, Mikey couldn’t be left alone. They would need someone trustworthy to stay with him. The downstairs neighbor was a lady they had known for years, and she agreed. She could come up and knit and listen to the soaps on the radio while Mikey sat and took apart his vacuums and toasters. He didn’t really need help with anything, just couldn’t be alone, and needed someone to make him a sandwich and remind him to go to the bathroom every couple hours. And so, Ellen was going out to work, and would be paid $1.15 an hour for it.
She had been taking care of her brother for almost as long as she could remember, and if that wasn’t work, she didn’t know what it was. He used to lay on the floor and scream, would bang his head so hard they didn’t know how he stayed conscious. He didn’t do that anymore. Once he put his head right through a wall and her Dad had to get the stuff to patch it up before the landlord saw it. Once when she was 12 they took him into Murphy’s and he got mad ‘cause they had moved the toasters. They were supposed to be on the top shelf, but some imbecile moved ‘em down onto another shelf and put the irons where the toasters were supposed to be. Mikey had knocked ‘em all down and then laid on the floor screaming. Their Dad had to carry him out. Some of Ellen’s schoolmates had been in the store at the time, but she held her head high and didn’t say nothin’ to ‘em.
So, on this morning, Mrs. Lorenzo from downstairs came up, and Ellen and her father were about to leave. Mikey got real agitated and started to rock fast on the floor. “Ellen doesn’t go! Ellen doesn’t go,” he said.
“Mikey, you remember, I told you before. I was gonna go to work with Dad, so we have enough money. You’ll be fine. Mrs. Lorenzo is here, you like her, right?”
“Mrs. Lorenzo,” he said.
“Yup, and she knows all about it. At 10, she’s gonna tell you to go to the bathroom. At 12 she’s gonna make your sandwich. At 12:30, she’s gonna tell you to go the bathroom. At 3, she’s gonna give you your snack. At 3:15, she’s gonna tell you to go the bathroom. And then, at 4:30, I’ll be home. It’ll all be the same, except Mrs. Lorenzo will be here.”
Mikey was only rocking a little now and said, “Ellen will be home at 4:30.”
She touched him on top of his head, which was all the contact he would allow. “I’ll be home at 4:30.” He went back to his toaster and seemed to forget all about Ellen. As she and her father went out the door, she prayed that everything would be all right.
Mr. Johnson had walked to the factory every day for the last 25 years, and now his daughter was making the walk with him. He looked at the ragged shoes she’d had for years, all he could afford for her. Now maybe she could buy some boots. With her first paycheck, they’d go into Murphy’s and buy some boots. For now, she would have to walk in the snow. Maybe today he could take her down Main Street and look at the Christmas decorations they just put up the other day. There was a Santa out in front a Penney’s. He thought she might like to see that. Sometimes he forgot she was a grown woman.
He took her to the office and had to leave her there. She had been a mother to Mikey, but had never stopped being her father’s little girl. Now she had to work, and he felt bad. In the office was a secretary and another office girl, Betty. Betty showed Ellen what to do. They filed papers, sorted mail, ran errands and delivered messages.
Ellen couldn’t put her finger on it, but didn’t like Betty right off. She knew Betty thought she was too good to be training Ellen, even though Betty was just an office girl too. Ellen resolved to learn her job as fast as she could. Betty always looked like she was expecting Prince Charming to pick her up for The Ball and then she could leave this dirty old factory behind. The factory men would make excuses to come into the office to look at her. She had short, platinum blonde hair, like that actress, Marilyn Monroe. She had a figure like an hourglass and Ellen felt colorless and dull next to her. On that first payday, the men lined up to get their pay and the three women sat at a table on the factory floor and passed out the checks. That was the first time Ellen got to see a lot of the men that worked in the factory. The men took their checks while Ellen ticked off their names on a list and had them sign. She got the surprise of her life when suddenly there was a child there in front of her, wanting to sign for a check. She stood up a little, looked over the edge of the table, and realized it was not a child, but a midget! She’d never seen a midget before and stared at him.
“Name?” she finally asked.
“Tipple,” said the little voice. Now that she looked at him, she didn’t figure he was really much older than she was, but not a child! He had brown hair and eyes, and a friendly face.
She checked off Tipple on her list and gave him the book to sign. “Hey, Tipple, want me to give ya a lift?” said a loud, obnoxious voice. Some of the men laughed, others looked disgusted or uncomfortable. The midget looked at her and said, “Yeah, ha ha. Man, that joke never gets old, y’know? Thanks.” She nodded at him and he went off.
Later in the office, Betty was being unusually friendly and giggling a lot, and at first Ellen was suspicious. She reminded Ellen of the pretty girls in high school who were nice if you were alone, but would laugh at your old clothes if their friends were around. She had learned not to trust them girls and didn’t trust Betty now.
It went on like that for a few days, and Ellen was becoming more confident in her job. Every day after work, before getting home to Mikey, she walked downtown and looked at the Christmas window dressings. On Saturdays, she brought Mikey, but he would only look at two windows and go home. He looked at the window of the appliance store, which featured vacuums and a washing machine, all decorated with red and green Christmas ribbons. Then they would walk straight to the toy store window, skipping all the other windows in between. He wouldn’t tolerate stopping at any of the others. Every week, she let him stand at the window and stare at the running train for as long as he wanted to.
Everything was going fine at home with Mikey and Mrs. Lorenzo, and it looked like this thing was just maybe gonna work out. Betty acted like she and Ellen were old friends and Ellen wondered why. But she liked having a friend and eventually welcomed the chance to fun around with a girl her own age. The old secretary was nice and put up with them both, only getting after them if they got to giggling too much and not doing their work. Finally one day, Betty told Ellen she needed a boyfriend.
Ellen blushed and said she didn’t have time for a boyfriend. “Well, see that’s just the trouble! You need one, get out there and have some fun. I got a friend who has a friend, and this friend a his wants a girl. But he don’t have time to meet nobody, neither, and you’d be just perfect for him. He’s real nice, but shy. Today’s Friday, we could all go tonight!”
Ellen was uncertain, and at first she said no, but Betty pestered her all day. Finally Ellen said, “What’s he like?”
“Oh, he’s real nice. Cute too. His name is John.”
“John. That’s a nice name. Like John Wayne.”
“We’re gonna see that new Elvis movie, Blue Hawaii, that just come out. You seen it?”
“No, not yet.” In fact, Ellen had not been to see a movie in a couple of years, and it would be a rare treat to go. “Well, okay.” Betty told her to meet them in front of the theater on Main Street at 8.
As she walked home with her father, she felt like she was breaking bad news to him as she told him about her blind date. He wasn’t happy about it, but he knew she wasn’t a little girl anymore and he better let her go. It was just a movie anyway, and was just right there on Main.
She’d never had time or interest in boys because of Mikey and he felt bad about that. It shouldn’t be a girl’s job to take care of her brother. He told himself this as they walked silently home in the cold, she for once not veering off to see the shops on Main Street. She seemed anxious to get home and he knew she was excited about this date.
“Ellen doesn’t go at night!” Mikey was saying. It was 7:45, and she was getting ready to leave for the theater. She’d put on her best dress and her new boots from Murphy’s, and done the best she could with her hair. It was red and frizzy, but she had swiped a little of her father’s tonic and calmed it down some. Now she’d told Mikey she was going. “Ellen doesn’t go at night?” he asked.
She had thought this might happen, but she was ready for him. She had something she had been saving under her bed for months, in case of emergency, and she brought it out now. It was an old broken toaster Mrs. Lorenzo had given her. “Look, Mikey, it won’t work anymore.” His eyes lit up and he took it carefully from her. Without a word, he went straight to the room he shared with their father.
Her Dad laughed and said, “Well, that ought a take care a him for the night! Okay, now I’ll walk out with you and watch as far as Main. It’s real lit up there, and them Christmas decorations’ll sure look nice at night!” He watched her until she turned and waved, and then he couldn’t see her anymore. He saw a lovely young woman on her way to a date. He didn’t know that other people barely noticed her, and if they did, it was to remark on the frizzy red hair, the dumpy little figure, the second hand clothes. He went back inside with a heavy heart, figuring he might just lose her soon.
As she approached the theater, she saw Betty, and recognized several men from the factory. They started to laugh when they saw her, and someone said, “Hey, Tom, here’s yer date!” The crowd parted and standing there alone, staring at her, was the midget. He looked confused, and then, when he saw her stricken face, aghast.
“Date?” he said.
“Yeah, we got ya a date, so’s you wouldn’t be lonely in the balcony.” There was raucous laughter from the men, and Ellen stood there frozen. She’d dealt all her life with bullies who picked on Mikey, had once even punched a boy in the face and been sent to the principal’s office. After that they wouldn’t let Mikey come to school anymore and the injustice of it still rankled to this day.
She walked over and faced Betty. “I thought you were my friend,” she said simply.
Betty stuttered and looked like she was having second thoughts about being involved in this joke, although it was too late. “It was just a joke.” She tried to laugh. “Can’t you take a joke?”
“This isn’t a joke,” answered Ellen. “It’s just plain spiteful meanness.” She shook her head in disgust at Betty, who looked down at the ground.
One of the men took Betty by the arm saying, “Come on, I wanna see this movie.” With one last look at Ellen, Betty went with him. The others, sensing the show was over, disappeared down the sidewalk and left Ellen standing there with Tom Tipple, the midget.
“Uh, listen,” he began awkwardly. I can walk ya home, if ya want. I’m sorry about this. They just asked me if I wanted to go to the movie. Didn’t say nothin’ about a date. These guys think they’re real funny.” He looked like he didn’t think it was funny, but wished it would be, just this once.
There was a bus stop bench there and she sat down. He hefted himself up and sat down too. Ellen said, “You don’t have to be sorry, you didn’t do nothin’. But she made it sound like there was somebody who really wanted to take me out. I was a little surprised to see it was you.”
He brightened a little. “Well, I ain’t had too much luck with girls. But I would like to take you out. If you’d wanna. Girls usually don’t.” He looked uncertain.
She said, “You would? Me?”
“Well, sure. Do you really wanna see this movie?”
Actually, she had wanted to. Before. But now she didn’t, knowing that Betty was in there. “Not anymore I don’t,” she answered. He looked a little crestfallen. “You know what I would like? I love to walk up and down Main and look at the window dressings. Could we do that? I ain’t seen it at night, with the lights!”
He jumped off the bench, and smiling broadly, said, “Sure thing! Which one’s your favorite?”
“The one at Penney’s! They have this real pretty necklace in there, I love looking at it. My name is Ellen, did you know that? They told me your name was John, but they called you Tom!”
“Ah, my name is John,” he answered, as they reached the candy shop window and stopped to look at the wonderful display. “But, they been callin’ me Tom a long, long time. Tom Thumb.”
She felt shocked, but couldn’t help herself. She laughed. “Yer kiddin’!” He laughed too, and they walked to the next window. They finished that side of the street, crossed and went down the other side. She showed him the Penney’s window and pointed out the necklace that she loved to look at. It was a simple chain, with a very plain heart shaped pendant. It wasn’t very expensive, but to a girl like her, it looked like the world. As they walked, she told him about her brother, how her mother had left, how the three of them had only each other. He was friendly and kind, and she was surprised to find herself telling him everything. He told her how his mother taught him to hold his head high no matter what. There was nothing anyone could do that he couldn’t do, and so, pass or fail, he always tried everything that crossed his path.
He walked her home. Saturday, John, Ellen and Mikey walked to see Mikey’s two windows. They went to the drug store and John bought them sodas, which Mikey loved. Sunday, they all walked to church. Monday was Christmas.
Tuesday, December 26, 1961, Ellen went to work. Wearing a huge smile, she walked straight up to Betty and said, “I wanna thank you for setting me up with John Tipple. You’re a real friend.” Ellen was wearing the necklace, her Christmas present from me, John.
We got married, February 14, 1962. We been married 50 years. We have two daughters, Mary and Joan, and two grandkids. We’re still in love.