If crumbling brick walls bloomed.
It was a sunny spring day in the U.P. (Upper Peninsula, Michigan). That doesn’t necessarily mean it was warm, but at least there weren’t several feet of snow piled on the sides of the road any longer. There were no snow pants, boots, hats, gloves and parkas to deal with. Gone (for another year) were the brutal blizzards, hours of snow shoveling, and the need for dads to put a heater under the hood of the car to keep the engine from freezing.
We lived about six blocks from the elementary school on Kincheloe Air Force Base. I was a toe-headed kindergartener and happy to be out of school for the day and walking home. My hands were free – Mrs. Mayo sent no “smiley face” papers home that day. In fact, it was a rare day when I was forced to carry anything more than myself home. This was before the days of heavy backpacks crammed full of books, papers and pencils – before hours of homework cut into evening T.V. watching time. This was kindergarten.
Girls were required to wear dresses. Mine was black and white plaid with a red bow at the white, Peter Pan collar. It had a pleated skirt that fell just above my knobby knees, and I was wearing a white cardigan with only the top button done. I can still see my little feet – white ankle socks inside new black Mary Jane’s. I have three sisters (two younger, who hadn’t started school yet – and one older, who got out of school later in the day) and I walked home alone. I guess there weren’t any other kindergarteners who lived nearby, because after I made the one turn onto Harper Street, I was the only kid around. But that was fine by me. Even at five, I liked my alone time.
Something kept me from noticing when the men began yelling at me – until it was too late.
I may have been counting my steps. Counting things becomes an integral part of my daily life – a way of dealing with stress. I couldn’t control much of what went on in our house, but I could control the counting. Or maybe I was daydreaming again about being an orphan who gets adopted by a mom and dad who don’t drink. These parents are rich and they have a brand new station wagon and they take their kids to Disneyland every summer.
“Hey you – get off of there.”
“Stop! Get off the sidewalk!”
“Can’t you see it’s still wet?”
The urgency of their words finally broke through and I suddenly became aware that I was in some kind of trouble. My heart raced, eyes wide, I stood still in a moment of panic. The same stance I take when I’m awakened in the dark of the night by Mama’s screams. Somehow I’d missed the orange cones blocking the way and had been inadvertently leaving little Mary Jane footprints in a stretch of newly repaired sidewalk. I was petrified that I had made a mistake. I was a good girl. I didn’t do bad things. I always did what I was told and tried to keep the peace. I believed that if I could be good enough, no one would get drunk, no one would fight, and no one would have to cry themselves to sleep, ever again.
But I had bigger troubles than just these men yelling at me. The seriousness of the situation became crystal clear when I looked down and saw the white cement creeping up the edges of my new shoes. Mama was going to bust my butt. She would surely use Daddy’s belt instead of her hand for ruining my new shoes. This could upset the delicate balance and turn the whole household upside down for days. I got off the sidewalk and ran as fast as my little legs would carry me.
I don’t know if those men came behind me and smoothed away my footprints or not. I don’t remember ever looking for them, or telling anyone that this ever happened – at least not for several decades. But I do remember rushing home, pulling off my shoes at the front door, and running up the stairs, my socked feet slipping on the smooth wood. I remember locking the bathroom door and turning on the faucet at the sink. I remember holding one shoe under the water at a time, scrubbing away the drying cement, holding my breath until the last of the evidence was washed down the drain. I remember being very careful not to let the water get inside the shoe because I knew it would stay wet for a while and that might give me away.
After using the hand towel to pat dry my now clean shoes, I exited the bathroom, walked across the hall into the bedroom I shared with my older sister, and placed my shoes in the closet. I’m sure this is when I was finally able to breathe normally again – to exhale and believe that I might have just avoided a disaster. Quickly, I changed into play clothes and went down to the basement where I joined my younger sisters in front of the black and white television just in time for a re-run of Lassie – where she too would save the day.
“He sees you!” Beth yells from across the street.
Georgia squeals, leaps from her hiding place behind the panel wagon in Mr. Mann’s driveway and takes off running. All the kids in the neighborhood call him Misterman like its one word. Mrs. Misterman keeps the garden hose coiled on her front porch (in the shade so the water doesn’t get hot from the sun) and has Dixie cups on the railing for when the neighborhood kids get thirsty. Heart pounding, bare feet flying, Georgia can hear Steve’s footsteps and heavy breath closing in from behind. Stealing a quick glance over her shoulder to see if she’s going to make it back to home base in time, the blond of Steve’s shoulder-length hair catches the late afternoon light and the strangest thought occurs to her.
I WANT him to catch me. A foreign flutter of unnamed excitement bubbles in her belly. Georgia is the most competitive kid on the block. She hates to lose – has been winning at Hide and Chase War all summer. She can run faster than all the girls and most of the boys. She can throw a football with a perfect spiral, hit a baseball over the heads of the infielders and climb highest in all the neighboring trees. Losing is not part of her world, but here she is contemplating losing on purpose – and for what?
She knows it without understanding why, that this is what she wants – to have him tackle her; for their bodies to tumble together in the warm grass, to squeal and laugh, to look into his golden brown eyes, study his full lips. Will I let him kiss me? A warmth spreads through her middle as she smiles and slows her run ever so slightly.
These are the last days of summer. Darkness swoops in earlier each day – beckoning the street lights, prompting mothers to step onto front porches, announcing dinner – even before the King of the World has been decided. Sixth grade looms like a dangerous promise for Beth, Georgia, and Steve, the Three Musketeers of Westhaven Drive. Junior High School! Books, lockers, a schedule of classes and teachers for every subject. The air crackles with change. They’ve outgrown the cubbies in Mrs. Mayo’s classroom, the Hank the Cow Dog books in the library, and the monkey bars on the elementary school playground.
“May I please be excused?” Georgia asks after having a second piece of fried chicken and eating all of her broccoli and mashed potatoes.
“Well, hang on just a minute, pumpkin,” Her mom says, patting Georgia’s hand that is already grabbing her plate and glass, ready to head to the kitchen. “Mom! you’re not supposed to call me that anymore,” Georgia whines, eyes rolling, exasperation mounting.
Ignoring the reprimand, her mom continues, “you know what happens on fried chicken night!”
Georgia relents and lets out a small smile when she sees the wishbone in her mom’s other hand. If it breaks in my favor, my wish will come true!
They each take hold of either end of the delicate bone, grasping gently with thumb and forefinger.
“Now close your eyes and make a wish!” her mom says.
Behind closed eyelids, Georgia wonders if her first kiss, in Misterman’s back yard less than an hour ago, was somehow visible, because she could still feel it.
“On three,” her mom says. “One. Two. Three!”
Georgia opens her eyes and sees that, through the magic of the wishbone, she will start the new school year with Steve as her boyfriend.
“Yes!!!” she exclaims as she heads to the kitchen to start the dishes.
Sixth grade is going to be awesome!
Excerpt from my book, More Than Everything
A year goes by. A year of life in the fast lane with lots of money, and we finally move out of the rent house in town. Shane’s paranoia has maxed out. He is now convinced we are being watched and is sure the cops are listening to our calls, so he finds and leases some property out in the country. Ten secluded acres in Wise County. There is an old run-down trailer house, a big barn, a chicken coop, and a huge garden plot. There is no phone line and Shane likes it that way. Shane decides that it is secluded enough that we can live there and he can cook his speed there too every few months when we need to make more money. He and his buddies buy a big, prefabricated barn and put it out there next to the trailer. We store all of our furniture and boxed belongings in the barn for the time being and live in the old, furnished trailer with the ratty gold shag carpet, a gold crushed-velvet sofa and a heavy, Mexican-style wood coffee table in the living room. In the kitchen there is a yellow Formica table and two matching chairs that is the spitting image of the one my parents had when I was growing up. The one that mama would sit at, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone while she swatted me away like a fly. One bare light bulb hangs over the center of the table. One bedroom is empty and in the other one, we throw a double-size mattress on the floor and use a cardboard box for a nightstand. We stack other cardboard boxes on their sides, so the openings face outward, forming a series of cubby holes, and use them as a dresser for our clothes.
It is great being out in the country, far away from the junkies. Our dog, a black lab named Dino loves running wild. A friend brings his dog out there too, also a black lab, and Dino is in heaven. Those dogs play, run, swim, hunt and have the time of their lives. For several months it is bliss; just me, Shane and the dogs living quietly, taking long walks in the woods and going fishing. Shane and I have never spent so much quality time together. It is nice. We are relaxed out here away from the city. Shane actually talks to me and hardly ever yells. He tells me things I’ve never known about him and I fall in love all over again. We sit in lawn chairs under the stars and listen to the crickets and the hoot of an owl. We sleep soundly and make love loudly and shower together every day. Shane finds an old tiller in the barn and after a day of tinkering on it, has it running like a top. He tills up the huge half acre garden plot for days and the earth is rich and fragrant; I sit in the big middle of the loose dirt grabbing handfuls and letting it sift through my fingers like all-purpose flour. We plant every kind of vegetable you can think of and revel at each tiny, green shoot that sprouts from the ground. We buy rolls of chicken wire and patch up the pens and fill them with chickens, turkeys and geese. We spend the spring mending fence, planting flowers, and sprucing up the place.
One day I am the only one home and I’m mowing the front lawn barefooted. I decide to go inside and put on some shoes before I try to mow the backyard where the grass is six inches high. I turn off the mower, run inside, grab a pair of socks out of the sock cubbyhole, and my tennis shoes from the closet and sit on the edge of the bed to put them on. As I’m tying the last lace, a large plastic thermos suddenly tumbles down from a shelf in the closet and lands at my feet. I jump up and look into the closet to see why the thermos would have fallen and I’m eye to eye with a huge chicken snake, as big around as a can of Coke, coiled and stacked on the shelf like a garden hose. Continue reading
“When I die, please don’t let there be any gardenias at my funeral,” she said, staring blankly out the car window.
All the lights in the history of time reflected in the wet street as the caravan of shiny black Town Cars crawled through Manhattan at dusk. The blurry symphony of color barely registered. Any other time and she’d be reaching for her iPhone to snap a few photos of the interesting reflections – maybe post them on Instagram.
“Hmmm… What? Sweetie, did you say something?” came his response a full minute later.
“Also please don’t let me die during the winter. Winter is already too hard. Winter sucks! Summer is when I want to die. Lots of sunshine. Or spring, maybe. Yes, spring. A nice, sunny spring day. Or….” her voice cracked. “…DAMN IT! There isn’t a good time of year to bury your best friend, is there? I couldn’t breathe,” she whispered.
He reached across the expanse of the cold leather seat and took her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his thumb across the tops of her fingers. “Yes, winter sucks.”
She turned to face him, pulled her hand from his in order to adjust her weight. The scooch of her pleather skirt against the leather seat produced a noise remarkably similar to the sound that often emanated from their Great Dane. Continue reading