Mrs. Hutchinson is our next door neighbor on the other side of our house, and she is a pill. All she does is yell and boss us around. Also she has a potty mouth. And she drives a motorcycle. Not a moped. Not one of those easy chairs you might see older folks with bad knees and hips riding around on. Mrs. Hutchinson drives a Harley-Davidson.
She’s this tiny woman with wild gray and perfectly beach-curled hair who wears red lipstick, drives a Harley, and drops more swear words than Snoop Dog before he decided to become BFFs with Martha Stewart.
She decorates her front porch to correspond with the seasons and holidays. September is apples, October is pumpkins — you get the idea. All her decorations are elaborate. She would make Pinterest say, “No way that’s possible. Who has time for that?”
Mrs. Hutchinson is not on Pinterest, I am sure of it. “Have a freakin’ idea for yourself,” she’d yell, and she would not say “freakin’.”
She is on Facebook, Twitter, and this thing called Next Door because that’s where people all seem to be comfortable both sharing pictures of cats and also all-caps screaming at each other. Mrs. Hutchinson doesn’t have cats, but as I mentioned, she loves to yell, and these platforms are her metaphorical microphones. I know this because every time she yells at me for doing something wrong she adds, “I’m putting this stuff up on Facebook, Twitter, and Next Door,” and she does not say “stuff.”
Once Sasha and I were making what we believed was going to be the world’s largest hopscotch game. It was going to take up the entire street and probably we were going to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. But when we got to Mrs. Hutchinson’s house, she screamed, “Don’t you dare write on my sidewalk squares!”
Sasha, who I don’t think is afraid of anything or anyone, and who has a temper just as fierce as Mrs. Hutchinson, stood up from where we’d been working, put a hand on her brow to cover the sun, and said, “Huh?”
“GET OFF MY SQUARES!” Mrs. Hutchinson yelled.
“They’re not your squares!” Sasha yelled back.
“They sure the heck are my squares!” Mrs. Hutchinson yelled, and she did not say “heck.”
When Sasha gets an idea that might be considered mischievous, rowdy or downright trouble, she starts to twiddle her fingers. Once those fingers start to move, there is no stopping her. This is how she became a drummer. Ms. Hopler was also our elementary band teacher and she picked up on this trait, and I guess saw untapped talent. She gave Sasha a pair of drumsticks, and she’s mostly stayed out of trouble ever since. Sasha takes the sticks — the same pair Ms. Hopler gave her six years ago — wherever she goes.
This was before that, though.
Sasha picked up the piece of chalk. “THESE,” she drew one hopscotch square, “ARE NOT,” she drew another. “YOUR,” a third, “SQUARES!” she drew a fourth then threw the chalk in Mrs. Hutchinson’s yard and wiped her hands on her jeans.
“I’m telling both your mothers,” Mrs. Hutchinson yelled.
“Yeah, they’ll probably hear about it first on Next Door!” Sasha yelled back.
“Or Facebook!” I yelled, after Mrs. Hutchinson had already slammed her front door.
Sasha gave me the side-eye.
“What?” I asked. “I was helping.”
“Dude,” Sasha said. “You gotta learn about mic drops. There can only be one.”
Anyway, Mrs. Hutchinson is at our front door now, yelling at my mom because someone stole her snowflake lights.
“I’m sorry to hear this, Mrs. Hutchinson,” my mom says.
It is not even 9 in the morning. I don’t think my mom has had all her coffee and I’ve learned from lots of experience not to mess with my mom before she’s fully caffeinated. I set up my school work at the dining room table so as to hear all the details and also to see which one of them swears first.
“They were on my baby tree, the one I’d set out on the porch next to the three reindeer and the snowman,” Mrs. Hutchinson explains.
“No Santa?” my dad says from the kitchen, loud enough so only I can hear. We look at each other and smile. If either my mom or Mrs. Hutchinson hears us we will be brought into this conversation.
“Who the heck steals lights off a baby Christmas tree?” (I don’t need to tell you Mrs. Hutchison didn’t say “heck,” right?)
“I don’t know,” my mom says. “It’s a shame,” she adds.
That’s a courtesy statement. My mom doesn’t really care, but Mrs. Hutchinson will keep talking and complaining until whoever she’s talking to will offer up a “so sorry,” or “that’s too bad.” Something like that.
“Yeah, well, if you see any white lights in the shape of snowflakes, they’re mine.”
“I’ll keep any eye out for them,” my mom says, beginning to close the door.
“Whoever did this can just rot in … ”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Hutchinson” my mom interrupts.
She shuts the door, and I open my laptop and shuffle papers to make it look like I’m getting ready for school.
“Honestly,” my mom says walking into the kitchen and straight to the coffee pot.
“Should we send out a search party?” my dad says, pouring a splash of cream into his tea.
My mom doesn’t laugh but starts tossing beans into the grinder. Not a good sign. She’s had no coffee at all today.
“I don’t know why she has to be so mean,” my mom says filling up the carafe with water.
The beans grind. She throws them into the filter, slams it shut and pushes “on,” then pulls out her baking binder.
Uh oh. My mom’s going to angry bake. This also isn’t a good sign. Last time this happened, a firetruck showed up at our house.
My dad gives me a quick but worried glance and says, “How about chocolate chip cookies?” He knows those are simple and satisfying to make.
“I’m thinking something more complicated than that,” she says tearing through her binder. “How about pumpkin spiced whoopee pies?”
“But it’s December!” my dad and I both exclaim.
My mom freezes and stares at both of us, daring us to challenge her baking decisions.
“I’m going to work,” my dad says, something that always makes me chuckle because since the pandemic hit, all he does is open the door to the basement and walk downstairs.
“Do you know where Mrs. Hutchinson’s lights are?” my mom asks me, taking two sticks of butter and a block of cream cheese from the fridge and slamming them on the counter.
“No,” I say, turning toward my computer and logging in.
I am not lying.
I have band first hour, and Ms. Hopler is walking us through our Shakespeare to Music Projects. For most of November, we’ve been studying Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet. Ms. Hopler was super geeked out about introducing this to us.
“He just made up Queen Mab,” she told us, her arms in position as though she was ready to conduct a symphony.
In his speech, Mercutio makes up this fairy who both helps and haunts people. That just sounded confusing to me. How can something help you and scare you at the same time?
Ms. Hopler wasn’t interested in whether we understood all of what Mercutio — or Shakespeare — was talking about. She just wanted us to mess around with the words. “Find the melody,” she told us. This is one of things I love about her, that she makes learning feel like playing.
So we composed a piece that tried to make the listener feel haunted but it was the kind of haunting that made you sit up and pay attention to things. I guess that’s how a fairy, or Mercutio, or a melody can help.
Now I’m supposed to compose a piece for Shakespeare’s Sonnet VII:
Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal loos adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
But when from highmost pitch, with weary care,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way:
So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon
Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.
I’ll be honest, I freaked out a little bit when I first read it. I didn’t have a clue what old Billy was talking about, but Ms. Hopler assured us understanding it wasn’t the point. “Play, my maestros, play,” she said.
She’s given us a bunch of assignments to get us comfortable with our sonnets. We have to hand-copy the sonnet and draw pictures of something that comes to mind when we read it. Next we are supposed to write down key words or phrases that we like or that strike us and then write a summary of what we understand so far about the sonnet, along with any music ideas we have. Finally (and this is the worst) we have to memorize it. Ms. Hopler says that memorization is the best way to allow the sonnet to become a part of us. I’m not sure I’m interested in that.
Shakespeare seems to be that kid in class who’s been given an assignment — like, write a 5-7 sentence paragraph — and comes into class with an illustrated book. If I were a teacher, he would so get on my nerves. Every teacher I know loves him, though.
I do like to copy the sonnet. Since everything is virtual these days, I don’t get a chance to use my notebooks and pens as much. I also like the drawing part. So far I’ve been sketching pictures of the phrases “gracious light,” “burning head,” and “golden pilgrimage.”
Charlie, Sasha, and I are working together, which is going to be hilarious, what with me playing the tuba, Sasha, the drums, and Charlie, the flute. He’s going to to have carry the melody, Sasha, the beat, and I’m going to basically stay out of the way. I think I’ll need to hold low notes for a long time. I bet I’ll be the haunting part. I kind of like that.
I can’t hear any music yet, except for the line, “But when from highmost pitch, with weary care.” I’m thinking Charlie can play a high-pitched melody, but it’ll have to be played slowly and then backed up by me in order to sound weary.
The poem kind of reminds me of Mrs. Hutchinson. I think it’s about being admired when you’re young, but once you get old nobody thinks you’re beautiful or good or whatever. I definitely think Mrs. Hutchinson has a cool-looking style, and she does make beautiful things. She’s just so mean and guarded. I mean, why make something beautiful if you’re just going to yell at people to stay away from it all the time?
Also, I’m not exactly sure, but it seems like Shakespeare is suggesting that sunsets are ugly. That line, “he reeleth from the day,” confuses me because I don’t think of the sun setting as an act of reeling. The setting sun is kind of sad because the day is over, but it’s beautiful too. I think the sun setting eases us into the night and the dark, which has beauty all its own.
“I think I’ll make these Whoopee Pies for Mrs. Hutchinson,” my mom says, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Because she’s so cheerful and kind and was so nice to you this morning?” I ask, to which my mom rolls her eyes.
My mom’s eye roll is on point. I bet she and Sasha would’ve gotten into a ton of trouble if they were best friends.
“Because I think she would enjoy them,” my mom says.
I shrug my shoulders. “Your choice. Save me one, though, OK?”
My mom leaves the kitchen, and I turn to the computer, ready for band.
“Good Morning, maestros,” Ms. Hopler says, and I take a breath to say good morning in return, but what comes out is a loud laugh instead, and I smack my hand over my mouth to stop it.
On the screen, I see Sasha, and she has decorated her drum set with twinkle lights in the shape of snowflakes.
What stories can you find from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets? If you want to try the activity Carter uses, Will Willingham created a great sonnet experience worksheet to help you organize your thoughts, and explore the sonnet.
Want to try your hand at Pumpkin Spiced Whoopee Pies? Better yet, want to make them for a neighbor who might seem (at first) difficult? Here’s a Pumpkin Spiced Whoopee Pie recipe.