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Pillar of Fire
Feathery brushstrokes of white cloud curl against the sky directly overhead where it is its deepest, most sacred blue. I’m laying flat on my back sucking the sweet juice out of a blade of grass and watching the clouds. That long wispy one over there is surely the flowing tail of a magnificent sky-roaming mare. The rest of her herd is only suggested in the silent, retreating clouds. Horses figure in the bulk of my fantasies in one form or another.
Let me tell you right up front that I happen to love horses. I ache to show them how much. I keep asking for a pony for my birthday or Christmas, but so far no one seems to be listening. Sometimes a box of cereal or the newspaper advertises a contest to win a pony, and I enter every one of those I see, but I never heard back on any of them so I wonder if the contests are for real.
Anyway, our backyard is a magical world, even devoid of ponies, where a single roller skate becomes a car to be sat upon and scooted up and down the driveway, or where a newly planted peach tree is a tall but very thin giant from another world to befriend or destroy, or where the garage roof becomes a ferrous seaside cliff from which to leap into thin air and to fly for a precious second or two before hitting the grass and the solid ground beneath, insteps, heels, shins, knees, and teeth stinging from the insult of gravity. This space, between the tall fences that border our property, is where I explore my given world and the inner worlds of my creation. And here, before my mother calls me in to lunch, is where I dream.
It is summer, 1954, not too long after my fourth birthday.
Last summer I caused a ruckus when I left home with the intention of walking to Daddy’s work to collect the kiss he forgot to deliver when he left for work. We lived on Andrews Street at the extreme east end of town and the beginning of the thoughtfully alphabetized streets, two streets per letter. Daddy worked on Loring, twenty some blocks away. Walking east on Monte Vista, I recalled the names of the streets, which I knew at age three better than the math to count twenty blocks, as I passed them: Browning, Brockton, Chesterfield, Claxton, Dearborn, Daytona . . . . Here, I got sidetracked.
Up Daytona toward Highway 55, the main drag through town, on the right side of the street was a bicycle shop. In that store was a tiny two-wheeler with training wheels that the man would let me sit upon. My original mission forgotten, I stopped to visit that bicycle, all shiny red metallic paint and chrome. I climbed aboard, but it didn’t take long to tire of sitting on a display bike that wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t quite shaped like a pony.
By then it was past mid-morning, and I was getting pretty thirsty, so I headed to a drugstore on 55 that had a fountain and crawled onto the wooden bench in an abandoned booth. On the unbussed table was a leftover glass of ice with a little bit of cold water in the bottom and a bent straw with lipstick prints on the end of it. I hadn’t even gotten the first sip yet when a gruff man with bushy eyebrows and no sense of humor chased me away. I left the drug store in a hurry, chastened but unrepentant, and looked both directions before crossing the highway.
At the corner of one of the F streets and the highway was the JC Penney Company that caught my attention next and continued to obscure the original intention of this adventure. On the main floor inside Penney’s in the children’s department, I found a table piled with unbelievable treasure. Chaps. Cowboy chaps with long fringe down the sides of the legs! My only understanding of commerce was that stores had things you could take home, but my understanding of cowboys was that all real ones wore chaps. So I claimed a pair of chaps, probably made for an eleven- or twelve-year-old, which I had to hang around my neck to keep them from dragging on the floor and a too-big hat to go with them. No real cowboy wore chaps without a hat. Out into the hot sun I strode in my criminally-acquired outfit, the chaps looking more like brown overalls to the casual passerby, and the hat, well, it hung in my eyes. It was the vision of being a real cowboy that mattered. I was pleased as punch as I sauntered through my quiet hometown, leaving the busy highway and heading back toward the north, totally innocent of any wrongdoing.
On the corner of Mountain View and Jamison was a tiny store with a couple of gas pumps where we stopped frequently for gas, last minute groceries, and penny candy. We called it the Little Store, in an age long before franchised convenience stores had been conceived. On the east exterior wall was a billboard-sized advertisement for Wonder Bread with red, yellow, and blue spots like hovering balloons. Builds strong bodies twelve ways. Inside, the glass-fronted candy counter stretched most of the length of the small space, at least in my three-year-old memory, tempting customers to add another nickel or dime to a gas purchase. Wax lips and moustaches, wintergreen flavored candy cigarettes, licorice and peppermint sticks, root beer barrels, malt balls, Neccos and Smartees, Cherry Mash and Pez, Life Savers, Like-M-Ade and, of course, bubble gum: Double Bubble, baseball trading cards, jawbreakers, and that weird grape flavored bubble gum were all preferred in dazzling display. I mean "preferred" as in "put forward for consideration by an authority," not "to like this better than that." I looked it up in the dictionary.
Kindly old Mr. Kelly, the proprietor, squinted down at my diminutive chaps-draped self and asked what I might be needing on this fine day. He didn’t comment on the appearance of a real cowboy standing before him in his very own store.
"Fill ‘er up," I said in my best cowboy voice, shoving my upturned hat toward him. "Double Bubble, please."
He grinned. "That much, eh? That’s a lot of bubble gum for such a small girl."
"I might need to share some with my friends." I ignored his reference to my hated gender. Not only do I love horses, but I would really rather be a boy. When I was born my brother didn’t want me because I was a girl, and I’ve been trying to compensate ever since. These aren’t really secrets about me, because I don’t go to any effort to hide either one.
"And how might you be planning on paying for all this?" he asked as he placed a double handful of little pink bricks into my hat.
"Charge it." I stretched up on tiptoe to receive my wonderful purchase and not spill any on the floor. Three-year-olds might not understand the finer points of commerce, but I thought I grasped the correct usage of these magic words.
I left a chuckling Mr. Kelly and the Little Store trailing gum wrappers with three whole Double Bubbles making a great grainy glob in my small dry mouth and with my hat full of glorious gum cradled in my arms. Cottonwood fluff floated like snowflakes on summer heat waves, crickets trilled in the bushes as I walked away. And chewed.
It was thirst that ultimately betrayed me; otherwise, I might still be out there wandering the streets and innocently shoplifting to my heart’s delight. But the wad of bubble gum sucked what little moisture remained on my thickening tongue, and I began to think diligently about finding something to drink.
About that time I spied Rose’s blond brick house with its mansard roof and circular window by the entry. I knew about things like mansard roofs because Daddy built houses. We lived in one of his houses. He drew the plans and bought the land and dug the holes for foundations and told the crewmen what to do and walked through the rising skeletons of two-by-fours with narrowed, darting eyes that revealed how religiously he observed, measured, and weighed every tiny detail. Whenever we went for a drive, he was careful to point out the gable here or the hip over there. Maybe he thought I was too young to remember, but I did. To this day I know one kind of roof from another. Maybe memory starts once we have words to define our world and our experience. I was mostly articulate by two or two and a half and my memory is good back that far, so it seems to fit. Anyway, Rose was a friend of my mother’s, and she just might have something cool to drink.
I rang the bell and a short woman with dark curled hair and a cigarette looked out, around and then down before she saw a small sweaty girl gum cowboy. She looked up the street one way and down the other.
"Midge? Where is your mother?" I’m Midge, the runt of the family who got dubbed Midget, then shortened to Midge. My real name is Christina McArthur Preston but please, don’t tell anyone that.
"At home, I think. Or maybe she’s out shopping for wallpaper." Mother decorated Daddy’s houses.
"Does she know where you are?"
I shrugged. I hadn’t really thought about it.
Rose looked at me what seemed like a long time to one so parched. "Maybe you should come inside and wait while I give her a call," she finally said as she opened the door and waited for me to enter.
"I sure could use a drink," I said.
I really liked the idea of grape juice better than the actually drinking of it. The name conjured images of a liquid that ought to taste like light, refreshing, grape Kool-Ade sort of grapes. Instead, it was thick and heavy and a little tart, and it puckered the back of my dry throat as it went down. All in all it didn’t help my thirst much, but I drank it anyway. It never occurred to me to ask for cold water, but what did I know? I was only three at the time.
My mother’s eyebrows were knit together in a tight V when she came to get me. They did that when she was mad. She made me show her every place I had been that day. She made me give the chaps and hat back to a sales girl in Penney’s and what was left of the Double Bubble back to Mr. Kelly who apologized over and over to my mother, saying he had thought she was getting gas and he never dreamed that I was out and about by myself. She made me say I was sorry to both of them, Mr. Kelly and the sales girl, but I just didn’t get what I had done that was so bad. I absolutely did not deserve to relinquish those chaps.
You might be interested to know that in spite of my tender years, I was never lost, never afraid, and never once did I feel small or alone. For me it was a day of sparkling self actualization, an adventure of my own making--a day that would go down in family tradition as Midge’s Shopping Spree. For my family, I suppose in retrospect, it was hell, even though the story would be told over and over again in the years to come. And she crossed the highway twice! By herself! At three! What I got out of it was that grown-ups don’t give little kids nearly enough credit for what they know at an early age. I was already sentient by age three.
Maybe I was born into the wrong family, I think and squint at the clouds. Remember? I’m on my back, sucking grass. Maybe I was supposed to be someone else. But if I had been born someone else, would I know it? Or would I be like I am now, thinking I’m just me and no one else? For that matter, how can I be here at all, and how can it be that I know I’m here? What is it that makes this body get up and walk? How can I make my finger move just by thinking it? What makes me able to think? What differentiates me from, say, a piece of meat that can’t walk, think or do anything? Questions tug at me, as if a hand has hold of my heart and begins to squeeze, or maybe like the longing to fly that must stir inside a cocoon long before the birthday of the butterfly. I lie still and try to see my eyelashes, but they are only a gray blur against the blue sky. If I stop squinting, I can’t see them at all. My eyelashes, I mean.
"Miii-idge!" The word is drawn out into two syllables and the tone changes a whole step and a half downward in the universal song of calling someone who is far away, B flat to G. Most doorbells play this interval, if you’ve ever noticed, unless it has the drawn out Westminster Chimes that is getting popular today. Actually, this is exactly the same tune, B flat to G, my mother whistles in the grocery store or when she’s walking the neighborhood looking for one of us. If I don’t respond right away, she’ll change to the whistle because it carries farther. Usually if she gets to the whistle stage, I’m in trouble.
I get to my feet and smack my horse on its butt (mine) to get it going. Away I gallop to lunch. Maybe there will be oats and hay and carrots.
Mandy meets me outside the back door.
"Mom says to wash your hands before we eat." Her tone is like it always is with me, authoritative. I’m four years younger and ripe for being bossed, but mostly she likes to be the teacher. She makes it sound like if I don’t wash my hands I’ll be in big trouble, and it won’t be her fault because she warned me.
I stick my tongue out at her on the way by and she reciprocates.
In the bathroom I splash a few drops of water on my hands and look in the mirror, slicking the sides of my short blond hair back into a semblance of a duck-tail. A few freckles dot the bridge of my nose and the apples of my tanned round cheeks, which I squinch up making a face at myself. How in the heck can I see anything out of these eyes? I can see they are blue-green, that they have a dark blue edge and gold flecks here and there, but how can they see that? And why did I have to be a girl, anyway?
I spy my rubber knife on the counter that I got at Woolworth’s for playing cowboys and Indians and it reminds me that I have to pee. If I stand facing the open toilet and pee down the knife blade, I can do it almost as good as any boy and, most importantly, standing up. I don’t see my mother come into the bathroom to check on what’s taking me so long. She peers in from the doorway, surprise registers on her face, and she snatches me up and throws the knife in the sink, setting me down firmly on the toilet the way girls are supposed to do it.
"That will be all of that, young lady," she says, and I know from the tone of her voice that she means it. What did I do now? How can I be more like a boy if I have to sit here like a girl? Takes all the fun out of peeing, seems to me, but it’s the last time I use the knife for such work. I know when I’ve been overruled, like it or not.
Lunch is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a little pile of potato chips with a sweaty glass of cold milk. Everyone is gone but Mother, Mandy, and me. We each have our selected reading for the lunch break, Mother a women’s magazine and Mandy and me a comic book apiece. Today I chose Donald Duck. Tomorrow it might be Superman or Nancy and Sluggo. I stay away from the Children’s Classics that Lindsey likes with scary stories like Jane Ayre and the writings of Edger Allen Poe. Lindsey is thirteen and likes her books the scarier the better, but she calls it "dark" rather than scary. I absently place my potato chips in piles sorted by size, then eat all the crumbs and little ones first before working my way through the stacks of increasingly bigger chips along with the sandwich. The salty chips make an interesting contrast to the grape jelly. Mandy finishes her glass of milk before taking a bite of her food and asks for another one. Mother says no, she has to eat her sandwich first. Mandy waits until Mother looks back at her magazine before she makes a face, crossing her eyes and twisting her lips. We avert our eyes from each other so we don’t accidentally giggle out loud and go back to silently reading our respective books.
Sandwiches more or less gone--mine more, Mandy’s less--Mandy and I take our books to our room for our "nap" time. We don’t have to go to sleep, but we do have to stay quiet on our beds until time is up. We grab a few more comics and trade them off when we finish with one. In an hour we can get through quite a few comic books.
"Tomorrow’s Saturday," Mandy whispers.
I groan. We really hate Saturdays because Saturday is cleaning day. Having our fingernails pulled out by the roots would probably be better than having to help clean house.
"Why did you have to bring that up?" The day had been going along pretty nicely before she threw out the imminent approach of Saturday.
"Just ‘cause." Mandy gets the teacher look on her face. "I have an invisible friend," she says. "She visits every day when you aren’t looking."
"Really? What’s her name?"
"What kind of a name is that?"
"Well, she’s a fairy. She lives behind the garage and only shows herself when I’m by myself. She teaches me about God."
"What does she say?" About God?
"She says that God can do anything. There is nothing in the whole wide world that God can’t do."
I try to picture the farthest-fetched thing imaginable.
"Can he roller skate on a tightrope?"
"Well, what if he was balancing a bear on each of his shoulders while he did it."
"Okay then, how about this? Can he roller skate backwards on a tightrope, with ten bears on each shoulder? Can he? Huh? What do you say to that?"
"You can get up now, girls," Mother calls from the hallway.
We leap joyfully off our beds.
"You may play outside for two hours while I get dinner started."
Two whole hours! It feels like a luxuriously long time. Usually we get one hour to play.
I grab a box filled with plastic horses of various origins and what we call "little pink guys." About an inch or inch and a half high, little pink guys are pink plastic baby dolls that are actually made to sit in a doll house highchair. Each little doll sits with legs veed at a ninety degree angle to the body, with arms outstretched as if begging in baby sign language to be picked up out of that damn chair. The remarkable thing about little pink guys is that the veed legs are amenable to straddling the neck of a plastic horse. Once in place, the pink guy and horse can be directed together anywhere you want them to go, and the pink guy looks more appropriately like he’s guiding or patting the horse with his outstretched arms rather than begging for rescue.
"Let’s play horses," I offer, shaking the box in front of me.
"’Kay. I get the black one." Mandy helps herself to the favorite horse.
I let it go and choose a palomino and pink rider. It’s not worth the energy it would take to argue. "This is Roy Rogers and Trigger."
We set up in the gutter in front of our house, the curb and sidewalk becoming a bluff dropping off to the river below. The horses run and jump and flee danger and get shot and die and come back to life and have babies and love their masters.
"You shouldn’t be afraid of thunder," I say, my eyes sliding sideways to take in Mandy’s face and the huge cumulus clouds building up behind her. This kind of cloud often accompanies dazzling displays of jagged flashes and ground-shaking bursts of sound.
"Why not?" Even though she’s older, Mandy is not entirely comfortable in a thunderstorm. She hasn’t noticed the approaching thunderheads.
"Because. There’s a story that goes with it. See, when lightening flashes, that’s a beautiful silver-white mare streaking across the sky. And the sound that comes after is a whole herd of boy horses running to catch up with her. They are called the thundering herd and they’re all black."
Mandy doesn’t like me telling her anything she doesn’t know. Holding my stare, she finally says, "Huh." She likes the story, but concedes nothing more. I feel the rare sweetness of winning a round.
She decides to change the subject. "Don’t you wish we could make these little horses and guys come to life?"
Immediately I’m seeing wonderful opportunities for adventure and fun.
"They could sleep in the box in our room and we would bring them little bits of food and grass for the horses."
"Yeah! And we could take them swimming in the bathtub with us."
"And the couch could be a mountain in their world, and we’d have to protect them from the neighbor’s cat eating them."
In my mind, it’s so close to real that I feel a huge emotional tug of longing for it to be true. What fun we could have.
"How do you think we could make it happen?" I ask. At my age, one has not yet built rigid rules for what is and is not possible.
"Well, I saw on a TV show where the housekeeper had a seagull that was hurt, and they put it in the middle and all sat around it in a circle and they thought about it really hard. After a while, maybe a long time, the seagull took off flying. It got well. I guess that’s what you’d have to do."
"Let’s try it."
We are still sitting staring intently at the box of horses and little pink guys when Sal and Mitchie from down the street come by.
"Whatcha doing?" Mitchie peers down at us through his thick glasses.
"We’re going to bring the horses and little pink guys to life and have little tiny friends to play with."
"You are?" He looks kind of nervous, glancing from each of us to the box and back to us. "What makes you think you can do that?"
"Saw it on TV, so it must be true." Mandy glares at him, blue eyes blazing, dark blond hair curling around her ears, daring Mitchie to refute her. She got curls. I got none. My hair is straight as a stick. My mother has to take me to the barber shop to get it cut, and they say, "Oooh! Here comes our little Fuller brush!" It’s that straight and that wiry and I don’t think the Fuller brush analogy is meant as a compliment.
"Kids up the block are getting up a game of kick the can. You want to play?" Sal waves her hand in the general direction, defusing the hot emotion.
I peer into the late afternoon haze and see kids of all sizes gathering in the street. They are milling about, occasionally pushing one another as kids left unattended tend to do, jockeying for their relative positions of hierarchy which generally leaves the littlest kids in the lurch.
About then Daddy’s car appears in the haze, pulling slowly past the group of kids, getting closer until it turns into our drive. Sammy gets out on the passenger side to open the garage door. Sam is our brother, a year older than Lindsey, and he’s my hero. He plays basketball on the driveway with his friends. He is funny. He works with Daddy on the jobsites. He’s always thinking about what he can do for someone who is having a hard time. He has really curly light brown hair that he keeps cut short so no one will see the curls. His is the curliest of us kids, Lindsey’s is second (which she hates with a passion), and Mandy’s is loosely curled. It’s like the curl gene got diluted each time it was called upon to do its stuff and had nothing left at all when it got to me. If we play our cards right, sometimes Sam even plays with us.
We light up. "Hey, Sam. Kick the can starting right now. You in?"
"Sounds like fun. I’ll catch up after I shower."
"Goody." I guess we played our cards right.
Hugs and kisses to Daddy and up the street we go.
"Not it," someone starts.
"Not it!" "Not it," "not it," echoes through the group until the slow one gets caught being it. Me.
An empty pork’n’beans can, the big kind, is placed in the middle of the street and I hunker over it, put my hands over my eyes and start counting out loud in a shrill singsong voice, "Five, ten, fifteen, twenty. Twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty," until I get to one hundred. "Ready or not, here I come!"
I head in the direction I last heard someone breathing and find myself at a speed disadvantage as an older kid rushes past me and kicks the can. "Free!" he shouts, and shoots me a smug grin. I never had a chance.
The can is across the street, so I have to go get it and put it back at home base position. From there I take a cruise through the side yard and into the back where all the yards down the block are one big open space. No one has fences yet, except we are getting one built and a bare skeleton of framing breaks up the openness. Blurry figures dart past me and begin to reach the can and declare themselves free. Almost out of options, I gallop for the front and spy Mandy just rounding the side yard. Since I was already a lot closer, I hit the can before she can get there and yell, "One, two, three on Mandy!" as my foot sends the can scuttling. Good. I don’t have to be it anymore. Mandy can do it now.
Mandy rights the can, covers her eyes and starts counting as we all run for cover. Sam comes out the front door, sees how the game is playing out and cuts north around the house, heading for the alley. I trot to the south side of the house and go across the neighbor’s back yard about the time Mandy finishes counting. "Ready or not, here I come!" I see Sal disappearing under the bushes beside the neighbor’s house and Ronnie from the house three doors over pulling the tarp keeping the fence lumber dry over him. Maybe I can go around the back side of the garage without being seen and run for the can while Mandy is busy with someone else. I get in position and peek around the corner just as Sammy leaves the alley heading for the can at the same moment that Mandy reaches the neighbor’s back yard. They see each other and the race for the can begins, with Mandy slightly ahead because she wasn’t as deep in the back when she spotted Sam.
She looks over her shoulder to see how close he is, turns back to run in earnest just as the bridge of her nose connects with the two-by-four cross beam of the frame of our new fence. WHAM! She smacks the board and bounces back three feet before any of us can react. I have time to wonder if I’m going to be short one sister and time to think further that it might mean I would have our room to myself, when I hear her wailing. I guess she’s not dead after all. Various kids appear out of their hiding places and vanish into the last rays of the late afternoon sun. Kick the can is over for tonight, only one casualty.
It looks like Mandy is going to be okay. She’ll just have a red welt connecting her two black and purple eyes for a few days. Dinner is relatively quiet in deference to her injury. She sits with a bag of ice cubes held to her forehead, drinks two glasses of milk, toys with her dinner and asks to be excused. Also in deference to her injury, she is allowed to leave the table without finishing her food.
Later, lying in bed staring into the darkness, I wonder if she’s awake.
"What happens to us when we die?"
"Huh. Well, we won’t be able to see anything or say anything or think anything or do anything. I guess it will be kind of like being frozen."
"That doesn’t surprise me nearly as much as being able to see or say or think or do anything in the first place," I answer. "What is it that causes our pile of dead parts to be alive? Have you ever thought about that?"
"You’re goofy. Go to sleep. I have a headache and you’re making it worse."
Well, had she? Ever thought about it? Or am I goofy because I’m the only one in the world who thinks stuff like this? And if I can think at all, why do I think different thoughts than everyone else? I mean, if you think about it, wouldn’t you suppose that just thinking at all is the miracle, so why do we have to add that people can think independently of each other?
Before long I’ve thought myself into an impossible corner and I drift off to sleep.
You’ve probably gotten the idea by now that my life thus far has been lived in freedom and innocence, and you would be right. But nice as that is, things are about to start changing.
The morning crackles with anticipation, voices giddy to bursting. We have got a maid. A maid! No more dreadful housecleaning chores on Saturdays when children should be out playing and exploring. No more making beds or taking out trash and burning it in the incinerator by the alley. No more setting the table or clearing it after dinner. No more ironing pillow cases. No more picking up toys and shoving them in the closet. We will be people of leisure. No one in our neighborhood has such a distinction. I yawn and gloat into my pillow, savoring the brightness of my future.
I can hear Mother making pancake batter. The spoon goes rat-a-tat-tat against the side of the bowl, except the thick batter muffles the sound a little, so it’s more like rad-a-dad-dad--a drum with stopped up sinuses. My mother can stir faster than anyone I know. She will dip bread into the batter to fry for my French toast, which I love to top with melted butter and powdered sugar. Give me French toast over pancakes any day. Mother compromises on my behalf on pancake days. Which is most days, because Daddy likes pancakes, not French toast, when he isn’t having bacon and eggs.
The doorbell rings. Quiet voices of greeting belie the undercurrent of excitement. Coats are hung and instructions are given. Lobelia has arrived. I hold my breath and wiggle my toes deeper into the sheets. I know exactly what one does with a maid, and I expel the breath with an imperious yell.
"Lobelia! Bring me my nigger baby!"
Mandy is into dolls and I definitely am not, but my one concession is a racially correct brown version of the popular Tiny Tears. Feed her a bitty bottle of water, and not only will she wet her diaper, but she will shed a tear. I love my brown baby and have left her in the living room, so let my life of leisure begin.
Next thing I know I am being yanked out of my warm bed by one arm and set none too gently on the floor in front of a frowning woman. She shakes my doll in front of my face.
"Is this what you are talking about?"
I look up at her, eyes wide. This isn’t the response I expected.
"Don’t you ever, ever use that word again! Don’t ever call anyone a name like that. Do you hear me? I am not your slave to order around, and you better get that straight right now. Do you understand?"
I have no idea what is wrong with what I said, but I get the message. "Nigger" is not a word to use without extreme caution, if ever. Even telling you about it sends a chill crawling up my spine. As the offending word drains out of my developing vocabulary, although I don’t understand exactly why it’s so bad, the void is filled with a deep respect for this woman who is my first encounter with racial diversity.
"I think your breakfast is about ready, young lady, so make your bed and put your pajamas away after you get dressed."
So much for my life of luxury.
I have to admit, however, that Lobelia is just plain neat, once you get past the basic rules of engagement. And it doesn’t take us long to find that we love her dearly.
She takes my oldest sister into the basement where my dad built a recreation room the full length of our house. It has checkerboard black and white linoleum tile on the floor and a horseshoe-shaped bar at one end with a red Formica countertop that’s also horseshoe-shaped. Lindsey and Sam, my older sister and brother – older by almost ten years, although the two of them are only a year apart – have stacks and stacks of 45 rpm records that they keep on the shelf on the backside of the bar. Cranking up some jazzy music, Lobelia teaches Lindsey to do the bop.
Lindsey is enough older than Mandy and me that she is like from another planet. She wears bobby socks with penny loafers, white sweaters with a different colored scarf tied at her neck each day, and poodle skirts--which don’t always have any poodles on them anywhere--with stacks of petticoats underneath. The further out the skirt sticks, the cooler the person wearing it. One whole side of her closet is full of nothing but petticoats, mostly white with a red one, a black one, and a pink one, too. When we are sure she is nowhere around, because we have huge respect for her protectiveness of her possessions, Mandy and I love to drape ourselves with three or four petticoats each: pulled up to our armpits so they don’t drag on the floor, around our necks and over our arms like angel’s wings, and even pulled around our hairline like a bridal veil. Mandy does bridal veils; I do not.
Anyway, Mandy and I sneak down the stairs and watch the bop lessons until Lindsey notices us and tells us to scram. We run up the stairs giggling and shrieking "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in our shrill little girl voices and wiggling our butts as we scram. Lindsey glowers after us in her I-really-mean-it look, but Lobelia gets her attention back on the dancing business. All the teenagers watch American Bandstand and try to learn the dances while Lindsey has her own private dancing coach.
Another thing Lobelia does that we don’t tell Mother and Daddy is let us drive. Okay. So I’m four, almost five years old and have to sit on her lap to see over the steering wheel, but she runs the gas pedal and the brakes and lets me steer by myself. I can’t understand why she keeps telling me that I have to stay in my lane. I don’t even know what that means, so how should I know how to do it? It’s really fun but then it’s Mandy’s turn and I have to crawl over the seat into the back for the rest of the trip. I don’t remember where we are going, but I do remember that our Buick has an arm rest thing on the inside of the door that is just wide enough for me to sit on, as long as I don’t need both cheeks on it at once. This is my own special perch for when I’m not having to drive, and it gets me up high enough so that I can see the alphabetical street signs as they tick by and can catch the breeze in my boy-ish hair.
One time Lobelia scared the crap out of us when she stayed with Mandy and me while Mother and Daddy went out for the evening. We got to sleep in the basement rec room on the green couch that folds flat into a sleep-over bed. After tucking us into clean sheets and a light blanket, Lobelia stood quietly in the dark until we thought she had left to go upstairs. Just on the edge of sleep, we heard her voice, which she made all wobbly and ghostly woo-woo sounding, say, "The bed is rising." Mandy screamed and ran upstairs where all the lights were still on and I screamed and followed wondering what that was all about. I still haven’t figured it out, but maybe it was about time for Halloween and maybe she thought a little scary business was in order. From that night on, neither Mandy nor I liked going into the basement alone at night and, when we had to, we’d flip the light switch off at the base of the stairs (three-way switches hadn’t been invented yet) and run up them like the devil was after us.
Another time she took Mandy and me to her church one Sunday when Mother and Daddy were gone somewhere. Because we were different ages, Mandy and I got split up and put into separate Sunday school classes. I don’t remember much about it except that there were a lot more people who looked like Lobelia than I had thought, even little kids and all. When I peeked into the big room looking for Lobelia there were only racially diverse grown-ups in there jumping and singing and shouting, no white faces to be seen anywhere. It was not at all like the dull, whitewashed Methodist church services we went to once in a while. I thought hers looked like a lot more fun.
Mandy tells me that Lobelia is Pentecostal, whatever that is. She says that explains the jumping and shouting but it explains no such thing to me. I hate to repeat it, but what do I know? I’m only a little kid. If one of us gets a cold or tummy ache from too much candy, Lobelia gets out a tiny little bottle from her pocket, puts a dot of whatever’s in there on her thumb, wipes it on our forehead, and mumbles to herself. If we throw up anyway, she says she guesses she’d better pray some more. Huh. I didn’t know you’re supposed to pray when someone is sick; I thought you’d go to the doctor and get a shot in the behind. I’d rather take the praying and mumbling over a shot in the behind any day. Maybe Pentecostals know a thing or two worth paying attention to.
When Lobelia has been with us for a long time, sometime after I turn five, she tells us something that I’m convinced changes my life forever. She is staying at our house with us while Mother and Daddy go to a builders’ convention in Chicago. We’ve had fried chicken for dinner with macaroni and cheese and spinach--Mandy leaves as much of the spinach as she can get away with--and Lobelia is washing up the dishes and looking out the window. She washes and looks and washes and looks, reminding me of Daddy when he’s got some building problem on his mind and has to do something mundane in the meantime. The last dish hits the drainer and Lobelia says, "Get a jacket and let’s go for a drive," so we whoop excitedly and grab jackets and get in the car.
Soon we find ourselves stopped along the highway north of town near the city dump where town officials burn the combustibles off the top of the heap. Smoke curls into the cool evening sky and little figures of workers are silhouetted against the cherry glow as they rake and tend the flames. We sit in comfortable silence and watch the proceedings for several minutes, thinking that maybe we can get ice cream on the way home.
Then Lobelia starts talking those life-changing words.
"See how that fire burns here all the time, day or night?"
We say we see.
"Well, one of these days, before the year 2000, God is going to cause that fire to spread and cover the whole world. Only the ones who have been good will be saved from burning up in the flames. They will be turned into angels and taken up to heaven to get away from it. The bad ones will be left to deal with the fire."
Confused, uncertain of how this could be true, I choose to argue. "But, Lobelia, firemen will come and put it out. That’s their job!"
"When that time comes of God’s choosing, no one will be able to put it out. It will spread and spread, too big for fire hoses and tanker trucks to do anything about. Look," she says, taking a small Bible out of her pocket, thumbing pages. She points to a page. "It says here that God will send the Lake of Fire to consume the world and all the sinners in it."
Now this news disturbs me greatly. I have dire reservations about qualifying to be made an angel; in fact, I suspect that I am one of the bad ones, the sinners. And now I find that I suddenly have learned to pray any time I hear a siren in the distance that might belong to a fire truck. "Dear God," I say under my breath while neighborhood dogs take up the howl, "Please don’t let the big one come today. Give me a chance to straighten up and be good for long enough to be considered for an angel. Not today. Please." My innocence has been shattered and I have learned the meaning of deep gut-wrenching fear.
Weeks pass and my siren antennae maintain their haunted high-alert vigilance. I’m having the same dream over and over.
I am in the front yard of our house. Down the street I see an approaching whirlwind of gold sparks, like from a July fourth sparkler, moving from house to house, yard to yard. In its wake I see a small flame left in the front corner of each lawn. I get the hose and turn it on so I can put the fire out, but only a drop or two of water comes out before stopping altogether. I stand with the empty hose, helplessly watching the little flame continue burning, unhindered.
When I wake up, I pray again, "Not today, God. Please not today. If you care at all for little girls who need time to figure out how to be good, don’t make it be today."
Being good seems to be all but impossible. Trouble seems to follow me like bears after honey. I’m seven years old and still no pony. Is it because I’m not angel material yet? Sirens still make me very nervous and bring the prayers out of my heart.
Today Daddy promised to bring home a piece of the paper architects use for drawing houses. It’s the biggest paper in the world, and I’m thinking that I can draw a horse on it that is almost life sized. Close, but not the real thing.
Yesterday my cousins were visiting, Kenny and Joe. Their dad, my uncle Frank, works with Daddy on his housing project and the kids got to come along yesterday. We started the day at the construction site, playing that this saw horse was a merry-go-round horse, and that pile of lumber was a roller coaster, and the hill of dirt dug out for a foundation was Magic Mountain, and the wheelbarrow was the seat of a Ferris wheel. After tiring of the amusement park rides, we went inside to draw horses.
"If we had enough money, we could buy a real horse," I lamented, which gave me an idea. "Hey, we’ve got paper and crayons. Why don’t we make some money?"
"Oh-kay," said Joe, and Kenny got out the pencils and crayons and went right to work. After fifteen or twenty minutes we took our blue, yellow, green, and red currency in to show Mother and Aunt Billie, who are sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
"Whatcha got there?" Aunt Billie set her cup of coffee down and pushed her glasses from her forehead to rest on her nose so she could peer at our papers. "That’s nice, now, isn’t it?" She’s diplomatic, Aunt Billie. I have to interject a few words about Aunt Billie here. She put me in my place smartly a few weeks ago, and I’m a little more careful around her now, much as I love her. She overheard Kenny and me teasing younger Joe. One of us called him Dummy and the other one repeated it to reinforce the sentiment. I don’t remember which one of us started it, but Aunt Billie grabbed Kenny and me by the arm as we scooted past, stopping us in our tracks, and told us she didn’t ever want to hear us call anyone names again. It appears that one has to be really careful what one calls someone else, because I keep getting messages to this effect. "Knucklehead" seems to be okay, but "Dummy," "Stupid" and "Nigger" apparently are not. So there you go. Some day I will learn that this is how one shows respect to those we associate with, but right now I’m still learning.
"It’s money, so Midge can buy her own horse," Kenny explained. I didn’t think it needed any explanation. "We can make more if you don’t think it’s enough."
The ladies looked at each other with a funny brightness in their eyes and my mother broke the news to us, looking like she was trying to keep from laughing. "You know, of course, that making your own money is illegal. Only the government can make money that anyone can use to buy things. People get sent to jail for making money that the government didn’t authorize. It’s called counterfeit because it isn’t real money."
Well blow me over with a straw. How were we supposed to know that?
Three discouraged kids left the house to see what else we could do. We went into the vacant lot over one block that backs up to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store and Woolworth’s. Across the lot on the farthest side were, wonder of wonders, two horses, saddles on, bridle reins tied to the small trees bordering the lot. And no one was around. They were there just waiting for us! Three kids, ages seven, six and five, raced across the field. We got to the horses, Kenny working to untie the knotted reins and Joe and I trying to figure out how we could reach the stirrups to climb on. The horses were much bigger up close than they looked from a block away, and the bottom of the stirrup came to about my eyebrows. As we tackled this problem with high optimism, a man came around the corner of the store and yelled at us. "Hey, you kids. Get away from those horses! They aren’t yours!" Man, oh man, people sure do tend to get excited about kids who are just making the most of opportunity sitting smack in front of them. We weren’t going to hurt the horses; we just wanted to take them for a little ride, maybe gallop around town for a while shooting off our cap guns. What knucklehead makes up all these stupid rules, anyway?
That was yesterday. Today I light up as Daddy pulls into the driveway. I leap off the front step into his arms for hugs and kisses and to check on my piece of the biggest paper in the world. He didn’t forget. From the trunk he pulls out a beautiful untouched sheet of giant snowy-white paper.
I take the paper to my room and as I contemplate how to best fill it with equine splendor, I think about the dream I had last night. A few weeks ago I saw a movie on TV about a little boy in the south of France who befriends a pure white stallion that he calls White Mane. That’s the name of the movie. I guess there is a big swamp in that part of France where wild horses live. And the little boy. Last night I dreamed for the second time about White Mane coming through our neighborhood, down the street, right up to our house and into our garage. In the dream my heart nearly broke with love for this horse and I woke up both times with that strong feeling staying with me most of the day. So on my big paper shall go White Mane. How can I make a white horse on a white sheet of paper? I decide to just use pencil to outline the image. When I finish, I get scissors and cut all around the outline, thinking that I’ll end up with the next best thing to a three-dimensional, living thing. It’s pretty pathetic when I finish. How can the picture in my mind be so beautiful, and the picture on the cut-up piece of paper be so flat, so two-dimensional and looking more like a skinny chicken than a magnificent horse? I had actually thought before I began that maybe I could ride the paper horse around the house, but who wants to ride a skinny chicken?
Last night when we were sitting in the living room after dinner watching Gunsmoke, I cuddled in Daddy’s lap, my very favorite place in the world to be, short of a horse’s back. When I was really little, two or something, I used to sit on one of his knees and bounce up and down as if trotting on a pony. Every once in a while I would jump off exclaiming, "Oops, I lost my hat!" I didn’t really have a cowboy hat yet at that stage, but one can always pretend. Then I would help myself to sips of his beer, Schlitz in a can, until he felt inclined to pull it away from me. "But I didn’t get any on this side," I would wail, pointing to one side of my mouth. Daddy would roar with laughter that sounded like it was coming out of a big barrel. Usually it got me another sip of beer. Now, of course, I’m too big to use Daddy’s knee for a horse, but cuddling is fine, too. I remember thinking when I was three or so that I didn’t want to sit on Mother’s lap and cuddle with her, I was Daddy’s girl. That might not be a nice thing to think about your mother, but remember, I’m having a lot of trouble being good.
Maybe the problem is that Mother is the one who administers discipline with Mandy and me. We had a huge rainstorm a few weeks ago, and Mandy and I went out to play in the puddles after the rain stopped. We splashed our way down the block in the gutter that ran a few inches deep with runoff. At the north end of the block was another vacant lot, not the one where the horses were tied, that was adjacent to the local airport. In that field was a drainage ditch where the runoff from the houses went. The ditch was running full of water that day and provided all sorts of fantasy adventures, not the least exciting of which was its striking similarity to the swamps in the south of France. We must have galloped, splashed and played much longer than we had permission to, because when our Buick came by and we saw Mother’s cross-looking face with the deep V between her eyes peering anxiously out of the windshield, we knew we were in deep trouble. Sure enough, when we got home she told Mandy to get the strap out of the junk drawer in the kitchen and we were given several stinging smacks with the leather thong. I think it came off of a saddle, about half an inch wide and long enough that when doubled--which it was when used on our bottoms--it measured about twelve inches long, plenty long enough to pack a smart wallop on seven- and eleven-year-old behinds. She said she had worried that we had drowned in the drainage ditch. I know she loves us, but we really were okay. There was no need for such anxious worry.
Actually, now that I think about it, staying out too long is often the cause of red welts on our bottoms. We don’t wear watches and couldn’t tell time even if we did. Well, Mandy might be able to read a clock, but kids our age don’t have watches, and I sure as heck can’t tell time even if I had a watch. So why do we get in so much trouble? How are we supposed to know when it’s been an hour? Anyone worth her salt engrossed in important kid business will lose track. Why should we get in trouble for that?
Mother is also the one who forces us to help clean house on Saturday mornings.
We stand and watch her struggle with a mop bucket until she notices us and tells us what to do next, like gather up all the trash cans and take them out to the incinerator by the ally and burn the trash. We drag our feet and moan and groan as we empty the trash from each room into the bigger kitchen can, dig through the junk drawer next to the strap for a book of matches, haul the big can out to the alley, empty the trash into the metal barrel that serves as the incinerator, find a couple of used Kleenexes to light and use as fuses, touch the flame to the potato chip bag, and stay with the conflagration until it has burned down to glowing embers. We watch to make sure no burning paper floats into the weeds along the alley and starts a bigger fire. I have to admit that the chore itself isn’t really so bad, it’s the idea of the lack of free will to do what we want that rankles. Once all that’s done, we trudge back into the house where Mother is putting the vacuum cleaner together and we whine at her in unison, "Now what?" in a tone that leaves no doubt that we would rather be anywhere but there, slaves of a heartless master, and one more chore will constitute the worst abuse. Pretty soon she starts getting irritated with us, and once she really gets mad she finally tells us to go play. Every Saturday we replay the same script. She’s at a decided disadvantage in the popularity contest for favorite parent, but maybe it’s not her fault.
Lindsey is fifteen now and is more into boy trouble than playing in the puddles trouble. She works at the local theater and gets to do stuff like sell popcorn and tickets and dig jelly beans out of kids’ noses who come to the Twenty-Kiddy-Cartoons-for-a-Quarter on Saturday afternoons while their mothers go shopping. She is gone almost all the time, either to school or to work, and we don’t see much of her. Mandy tells me that she heard Daddy and Lindsey arguing about a gang of boys who were going to have a rumble on our front lawn. She wants to hang out with the wild kids at school and this greatly interests me. I have a dreadful fascination with things like knife fights and bloody car wrecks. Sometimes I wet my hair, slick it back on the sides, wear my collar turned up on my shirt with the front buttons open and play that I am what is locally called a "chuke" or a hood. I think hood is short for hoodlum, but no one who is anyone calls them hoodlums. When we play chukes, Mandy swipes the longest cigarette butts out of the ashtrays she can find and we light the short butts and smoke them, or try to. Somehow, coughing and gagging doesn’t seem as cool as a real chuke, and cool is what it’s all about. The rumble doesn’t materialize, maybe because Daddy says he’ll break their necks if they show up at our house, and I’m secretly disappointed. The hoods must not be as tough as they try to act.
Sammy caught me and Mitchie throwing grasshoppers against the back fence the other day. We were capturing the biggest ones we could find and watching them splat against the fence boards. Sammy told us to cut it out, how would we like it if some giant came along and threw us up against a fence to spill our guts. This from the same brother who at age 10 threw lighted cherry bombs into the lake at City Park and blew up ducks who thought the bombs were popcorn. I don’t feel sorry for the grasshoppers, although when I was younger I once told Daddy that he should never drive over a box or sack in the road because it might contain puppies or kittens, not that grasshoppers are anything like puppies or kittens. I’ve gotten hard for some reason as I get older, but Mitchie and I quit throwing grasshoppers--only because Sam is my hero.
Instead, Mitchie and I go behind the garage where we won’t be disturbed and practice cussing. We work really hard to string together as many bad awful words in as many combinations as we can think of. Goddamn helluva son-of-a-bitch is about as bad as we can manage, but we swagger extravagantly when we say it. Daddy says goddamn and hell regularly, whether in anger over something gone awry at the job or when jovially telling a funny story; Mitchie added son-of-a-bitch to the mix. We are inordinately pleased with our grownup worldliness. It never occurs to us that Rubella, Mandy’s invisible friend who lives behind the garage, might overhear our sacrilege and report it directly to God.
Mitchie says he has to go and I hear a basketball bounce on the driveway going thoink, thoink, thoink in a way that sounds hollow and percussively smacking at the same time. Some of Sammy’s friends must have shown up to shoot some baskets. I don’t play basketball. I can’t get the ball high enough to get near the net, much less into it. But I adore Sam’s friends and their funny teasing patter. Once, the cutest one of all, dark curly haired Tom Smith with the lopsided grin, hoisted me onto his shoulders so I could reach the ball into the net. I may wish I was a boy, but I’m not immune to feminine responses to friendly flirtation. Attention from much older boys made me giddy with delight. I didn’t really mean to pee on the back of his neck, but I got to giggling so hard I couldn’t help myself; I was that giddy. That was the one and only time I participated in the basketball games. I redden with mortification at the thought, but maybe Tommy didn’t notice the pee. Of course he didn’t. He just set me down and sent me on my way.
A siren wails in the far distance, reminding me that I’m not making any headway at all on being good. "Oh, no. Not yet, God. Please, please not today."
Reading came all at once for me. In first and second grade I had a hard time reconciling the rules of phonetics and spelling with the activity of reading words. I was put in the group of kids who weren’t getting it and my report cards said with boring frequency that I would benefit from reading out loud at home. Toward the end of third grade it all began to come together, not from the benefit of reading out loud at home, and one day I found that I could read just about anything. This discovery opened up a new world of imagination and adventure for me. Books like Follow My Leader, about a boy blinded from a defective firecracker and the guide dog he eventually got, Ride Like an Indian, about a boy at a dude ranch who learned to ride bareback and win the race held at the end of the summer, and The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, about a boy who went to all kinds of trouble to invent gadgets to help with his hated chores, captured me. I was soon hopelessly hooked on reading.
Now I’m in the fourth grade and my very favorite book so far is David and the Phoenix. I’m right there with David as he discovers an unusual gigantic bird high on the hill next to his house. The bird talks to David in an absent-minded, scholarly way that makes me laugh and takes the boy on his back to many wondrous places. My heart clenches in despair at the end when the Phoenix asks David to help him build his funeral pyre on the bird’s 500th birthday before stepping into the flames, and soars with relief when a new golden phoenix stirs in the ashes and flies away, safe and whole and reborn. I’ve read this book four times.
Lobelia left our employ a year or two ago, and some of the sparkle has gone out of our daily activities. The loss is gentle but still a loss at an early age, and it requires a period of grief. Daddy is busier than ever with his building projects, Mother seems withdrawn into a world of her own and spends a lot of time in her bedroom with the door shut, Lindsey has left for college, Sam is busy with his friends and working with the construction crew, Mandy has moved to Lindsey’s room leaving me alone in our room. Mandy’s starting junior high now and doesn’t have much time to spend with annoying little sisters. I miss our bedtime conversations. An occasional sock hop in the basement livens things up a bit, but I’m never allowed near the action. I’ll be glad when I’m old enough to have parties of my own.
When Mother comes into my bedroom one night to read me a story, I’m delighted. It’s been ages since we sat together on the bed reading together. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," she begins. She’s reading a story from a magazine titled The World Around Us. Somehow the story is familiar to me and I listen as she reads the story of creation and the fall of one-third of the angels and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. "The Bible Story" section of the magazine is illustrated with pen and ink drawings that render a black and white portrait of biblical events. I think that I really need to hear this and I wonder whether I might learn something about how to be good. The story ends with a drawing of a shining man-like being holding a sword at the gate of a beautiful park, a man and woman slinking away from the park in shame, and the words, "To be continued." Mother says we’ll read the next one soon.
I am wakened by angry voices in the night, and I hear Mother and Daddy shouting at each other. Daddy does most of the shouting. Mother mostly is crying. I wonder anxiously what is wrong before dropping back into restless sleep. In the morning nothing is mentioned about the ruckus and everyone goes about their individual business as usual. The only hint is a far-away look in Daddy’s eyes, but he welcomes me onto his lap and I share bites of buttery burned toast dipped into his coffee. Mother has given me toast and a little bit of coffee in milk for my own dunking, but it never tastes as good as sharing Daddy’s.
After school I go into Mandy’s room and sit on her bed. If I start talking before she tells me to leave maybe she’ll forget to tell me.
"What’s wrong with Dad and Mom," I ask. "Why were they mad at each other last night?"
A tear forms in the corner of Mandy’s eye and she turns away to hide it. She looks at me a minute before answering. "You heard that, huh?"
"What’s going on? Did Lindsey get in trouble at her new college?"
"Nothing like that," Mandy says. She tucks a curl behind her ear. She’s just starting to wear lipstick to school and she looks cute. Finally she releases a breath she’s been holding. "But I heard Daddy say something about a crackpot and California. Mom’s thinking about moving to the place where Lindsey’s in school."
"That’s far away. What will she do there?"
"Well, see, she’s interested in the church that owns the college Lindsey’s at. She’s going to go out there and look the place over before she decides."
"What church? Why does she want to do that?"
Mandy pulls a face and shrugs. "I don’t think I can explain it very well. I think I want to go too." She looks at me with uncharacteristic softness. "Disneyland is in California, you know, and the beach."
"What! Go to California? Our home is here. Our friends are here. Our family is here except Lindsey, and she was never around anyway. Everything we know is here. Daddy’s business is here. What would he do out there?"
"Midge, Daddy and Sam would stay here. Sam wants to work with Dad for a year before he starts college. He’s even thinking about joining the military."
All the blood drains out of my face and into the pit of my stomach, and I can’t form words to respond. Holy cannoli. My world has suddenly been jerked out from under me and I can’t find north. I start to cry.
"When was anybody going to tell me about all this," I demand. "When was anybody going to ask the littlest one here what she thinks about this? I’ll tell you what I think. I don’t want us to split up."
I’m wringing Mandy’s bedspread in my hands and yanking the sheets out from under the mattress while she tries to put them back. If I could throw the mattress, I would. "I think this is all a bunch of crap." I pull the door shut as hard as I can when I can’t stand to stay in Mandy’s room a second longer.
In my own room, door closed, lights off, I sob into my pillow. Mandy comes in and tells me not to be so upset, after all, it’s not a hundred percent certain yet anyway. Besides, she wasn’t supposed to say anything and I’d better not get her in trouble. When she leaves I stare into the darkness. I can’t swallow the lump in my throat and hot tears ache at the back of my eyeballs.
Somehow I get through the following days. I go to school. I see my friends. I stay up all night Friday until four in the morning reading my first dog story with no pictures, Prince Jan, St. Bernard, about a hospice dog in the Alps who helps find hikers and travelers lost in mountain blizzards. I read it all in one night and bawl at the end of it. Is there a dog book anywhere on this planet that doesn’t have a tear-jerking ending?
Mother goes to California. When she comes back she spends a lot of time in her room crying. My parents each have their own bedroom because Daddy snores so loudly. We used to invite our friends in on Sunday afternoons when he was asleep in his chair in front of the TV because we didn’t think they would believe us unless they heard him for themselves. That was in the good ol’ days. Now everyone goes around quietly like we’re trying to avoid one another. If we haven’t got much time left as a family, why avoid a single minute we could be together? No one feels much like inviting friends in to hear Daddy snore anymore.
"So," Mother begins one night after reading another section of "The Bible Story." We’ve read about Cain and Able, the Tower of Babel and now Noah and the flood. "You probably know by now that Mandy and I are going to move to California. Dad and Sam will stay here. We decided that you may choose whether you want to go or stay."
Choose one parent and sibling over another? Me? Yikes!
"But why? Why do we have to do this?" Building tears crowd out sounds coming out of my mouth and I can only squeak.
I look up into faded-denim blue eyes and see my mother’s tears. Whatever it is, it’s not easy for her, either. She dabs her eyes with a Kleenex she keeps tucked in the cuff of her sleeve and sniffs a time or two while she gathers her thoughts. "Your dad and I have been looking for the true church for a few years now. It doesn’t seem possible that they could all be right when they disagree so strongly with each other in what they teach. We’ve read literature from many denominations and organizations. Somehow we just didn’t think any of them were it. I used to talk about it with Lobelia and Lindsey.
"One day Lobelia gave me a copy of The World Around Us. I wrote to the organization and asked for some more information. They sent me a couple of articles and when I finished those I asked for more. Dad agreed at first with what we read. Everything we studied seemed to be based right out of the Bible. We asked for a visit from a local representative, and the church sent a pair of young ministers to talk with us. During that conversation they found out that I had been married before your dad.
"One of their beliefs is that God views the first marriage of a person as the only valid one. Anyone who marries, divorces and remarries might be committing adultery in the eyes of God, after all, the marriage vow is until death do you part. They wanted to have the top ministers in California review our case to see what they thought.
"Dad thought they were nuts and rejected all the rest we had learned. Lindsey thinks this one is it and decided to attend their college, so that’s where she is. When I went out there last month, I learned that if I want to join the church I have to leave your dad. My first husband is still alive and therefore that marriage is binding.
"This is what I have to do, Midge. I believe they are right about a lot of things, and who am I to argue?" Her eyes plead for understanding but I’m not sure I want to understand.
Holy moley! My mother? Married to someone else before my dad? Living in adultery, whatever that is? What else haven’t they told me?
I can’t look at Mother’s eyes so I look around my room. It still looks like it did before: linoleum floor, wooden desk with papers peeping out of the drawers, books and comics stacked on top, drawings of horses tacked to the wall, a collection of stuffed animals in the corner, lamp on the headboard glowing warmly. But it’s not the same. Nothing will ever be the same again.
"This isn’t very good," Mandy says diplomatically at the dinner table. I look at her and then at the brown lump on my plate and poke at it with my fork. Sam clears his throat and asks to be excused before finishing. He is, because he has a date. Daddy sits staring at his plate. If he says anything at all, all hell will break loose, so he’s weighing whether it is wise to keep quiet. He has never complained about anything Mother cooked in all the years I’ve known him. He even likes his fried potatoes, toast and biscuits burned on the edges, so it’s worked out well. Almost every time Mother cooks, at some point during the process a cloud of smoke wells up from the stove, and she looks to the side and says, "Oh, crap," as if saying it straight forward will somehow make it a bigger sin, while scraping the burnt remains off the offending pan. This is different. On the plate in front of each of us is a blob of what was supposed to be chocolate cake, one of our collective favorites; but this inedible mess is made with one hundred percent stone ground whole wheat flour and brown sugar, gratis of the new church in our midst. White flour and sugar aren’t healthy, and therefore should not be consumed. There isn’t enough milk in the state to wash down what an unsuspecting soul might have bitten off. I scrape my uneaten cake into the dog’s bowl and call Katrinka, the dachshund. She runs enthusiastically into the kitchen, sniffs the stuff in her dish, then looks at me like I’ve betrayed her before she wanders back to her nap place in the living room, accusation and disgust dripping from her posture, offending cake left untouched. This doesn’t seem to bode well for future gastronomic pleasures, does it?
I mean, how can so much about a person’s life change so fast? Last week we were eating whatever we wanted and were not the least bit worried about it.
After dinner, Daddy stops me on my way to my room for my good-night hug.
"Have you decided what you are going to do, Midgie? You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?"
I nod. He waits. I find my voice but it’s very, very small.
"I think I will go to California with Mom," I say, wishing I didn’t have to do this.
He rolls his eyes blinking back tears and forces a smile. "Okay, kiddo. Whatever you want to do is what we will do." If he is surprised by my decision, he doesn’t let on.
I can’t tell him that I need this, that I’ve got to learn about being good, that I’m doing this for God and it trumps everything else there is, even love. The words are all gummed up at the back of my throat. They will stay there for most of the rest of my life, but I don’t know that yet. All I know right now is that it hurts.
Before long we start the process of dividing up the furniture and household goods in preparation for the moving van that will take our things to the west coast. Daddy buys Mother a Rambler station wagon, a brand new 1960 model with three seats, the back one facing backward, that all fold down individually or all at once into one flat cargo or sleeping area. Light metallic green. We name her Greenie. There are no power upgrades like electric windows or automatic transmission or power steering because Mother doesn’t want any extra repair headaches down the road. "It won’t be as likely to break if it isn’t fancy," she maintains.
By early December we are finally ready to go--Greenie packed to the gills, possessions divided as equitably as possible under the circumstances, moving van arranged, relatives shaking their heads in disbelief wondering what on God’s green earth has gotten into my mother. I look around this house that my daddy built where I played when I was younger through its foundation and emerging structure, quietly bidding goodbye to each mortared brick and strip of crown molding and to my childhood memories. What are Daddy and Sammie going to do with five bedrooms and a rec room?
The last morning in our home is sunny and not too cold for a December day on the high plains. I look long and hard at the Rocky Mountains to the west, as if I could burn their profile into my brain where it would never fade, and I wonder how soon, if ever, I will see them again. We pause for photos on the patio before we go, one of Daddy by himself, one of Mandy and I individually with Sam. Looking at the two of them, the men of our family, is almost too painful to consider, but not looking, to fill our eyes and hearts, is unthinkable. A final hug and kiss, a final wave out the back window, and we cut the umbilicus and are on our own. Shadows are getting long when we begin the ascent into the foothills heading west. Somewhere about the time dark hits in full Mother pulls the car to the side of the road and we all three, Mother, Mandy, and me, cry our eyes out before we can continue any further down the highway.
Eventually we take a room at a rundown motel in a town that doesn’t seem to have a name. We don’t have many words for each other as we change into our sleeping clothes and fall into exhausted sleep.
Next morning I am the first one up and I find a play yard of sorts in the scraggly grass between the building and the highway. Between a broken swing set and a rusty slide, there is a bouncy horse just like the molded plastic ones that toddlers are fond of, except this one is on a frame that puts it up at about my eye level. I suppose the height is designed to attract older kids, even though the horse’s body is the same size as the toddler variety. As I try to finagle my way onto this equine contraption, the springs on the far side give way and the horse snaps suddenly toward me, hitting me in the mouth and chipping my front tooth. I gasp, cold air rushes across the raw chip which causes a dizzying stab of pain, a lot like a dentist drilling without any anesthetic, so I curl my top lip over my upper teeth to protect the sensitive chip and go back to our room. Mandy spots immediately that I’m hiding something and I have to admit what happened and show Mother the chipped tooth.
"Oh, Midge, just what we need starting out our new life," is all Mother says. Her eyes are red and swollen like she didn’t sleep very well.
We pack our overnight bags and head out, me with my top lip curled over my teeth. I pretty much have to keep it that way for the rest of the trip because the sensitivity is slow to depart. We stop at around noon at the Great Sand Dunes and stretch our legs and look at acres of rippling sand. Our hair blows around our faces in the cold December wind, mirroring our desolate moods. Later we make two more stops, one at Mesa Verde to visit the museum that is open year round with its fascinating miniature dioramas of what ancient Indian life might have been like, and another at the marker of the Four Corners, the only spot in the United States where four state lines intersect at one common point. A person can stand with one foot in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona all at the same time. The balance of the next day or two passes without interesting occurrence of any kind, just mile after mile of open highway that takes us farther and farther away from those we love.
At the California state line, just after crossing the Colorado River approaching Blythe, we are stopped at what looks like a toll booth by a man wearing a uniform who asks us if we have any live plants. I guess you can’t take plants into California from other states, just broken families. Satisfied that we are free from contraband flora, he tells us, "Welcome to California."
We stop at a date farm and purchase date milkshakes which are pretty good as long as I don’t let the cold liquid get anywhere near my chipped tooth. If we hadn’t driven in and watched the gradual change of terrain and landscape, I wouldn’t have believed the tall, skinny palm trees that look like really long-handled toilet bowl brushes growing here and there, or the forests of twisted and shaggy cacti called Joshua trees. California is very, very foreign to our mountains and plains bred eyes. Can this still be the same planet I was born on? The miles of desert that follow are interesting at first only in that they are different from what we are used to, but soon the desert becomes repetitious and no longer holds my attention. I read my book, Heidi, and lose myself in Swiss alpine meadows, glorious sunsets and wooden bowls of fresh goat’s milk. Like me, Heidi is a little girl who loves the mountains.
By late afternoon we reach a land of intersecting freeways and palm trees and houses as far as you can see. Mandy refolds the map and tries to navigate, but invariably we are not in the lane we need to pick up our next freeway connection, and we are very tired, very cranky, and very hungry when we finally arrive at our destination of Arroyo Verde, California. We find an economy motel along the main drag with a diner next door and have a remarkably good char-broiled hamburger before crawling into bed. For better or for worse, we are home, if we can get used to calling it that.
Mandy and I look at each other before turning out the light.
"Any live plants?" she says with a mischievous grin.
"No, officer. Just two live girls, one with a broken tooth, and one live mother. Everything else we have is dead," I chirp and giggle.
"Welcome to California," Mother sighs and smiles tiredly and turns off the light.
The headquarters of the Church of Global Ministries and its college campus sit on twenty-one carefully manicured acres of real estate just off Academy Boulevard in Arroyo Verde. Formerly a fashionable haunt of the rich and famous--actors, movie moguls, and industrial barons from the twenties and thirties, before abandoning it for Beverly Hills and the Brentwood area--Arroyo Verde is like an elderly aunt who once had a lot of money, and is now waiting quietly in musty comfort for her ultimate demise amidst fading memories of a glorious past. Mansions in various stages of upkeep and decay line the boulevard. Behind and below them, for of course the mansions occupy the hilltop, sit what was once housing for the servants of wealthy masters. California Avenue runs perpendicular to Academy and provides the shopping district for the area. The GM grounds occupy a corner bounded by California and Academy on two sides. Fifty-foot tall palm trees border the boulevard like ranks of skinny mop-headed soldiers standing guard.
Charleton H. Christoff founded the Church of Global Ministries when God revealed His plan to him in 1946 in Eureka, California. He used his background in advertising to create a series of booklets based on what God told him about prophecies from the Bible and a monthly magazine tying current events to the same theme. His teachings caught on, and six years later he moved the growing operation to Arroyo Verde and began buying fix-up mansions and adjoining properties from the proceeds of donations from his followers. He founded Global Ministries College to educate ministers who could help him spread the word of God around the world and to educate women who would properly serve as their wives. Considering that he says God requires ten percent of the income of all church members be paid to the church, he seems to be doing pretty well. There are five mansions on the GMC campus that have been refurbished and converted into dormitories for the 127 students currently enrolled and fifteen or so other buildings that serve various purposes in the operation of a, well, global ministry. Mr. Christoff ultimately makes all the decisions about the church and the college which he says are handed to him from God, so who’s to argue with that.
The church is different from anything I’ve ever heard of. Among the taboos we must now live without are smoking, make-up, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Hallowe’en, pork, seafood, white sugar, white flour, doctors, cussing and, of course, divorce and remarriage. On the strange observances side, we now observe Saturday as our weekly day of rest instead of Sunday and a whole string of holidays right out of the Old Testament with names like Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles which ends with the Last Great Day. As church members, we will pay ten percent of our income to the church every payday; we will save a second ten percent of our income to use only during the holidays; and we will give a third ten percent of our income, but only every third year, to the church to use to help support its widows and orphans. Holy gonzoli. Mother is only making sixty-five dollars a week as it is. If we have to take three tithes out of it, that only leaves us forty-five fifty a week to live on. Not counting what the government keeps. Thank God the third tithe is only every three years. Maybe she’ll be making more money when it’s time for that one.
Wednesday nights we go to Bible Study. It lasts from seven to nine-thirty, and after a hard day it is not easy for me to stay awake. Mother pokes me in the ribs if I nod off. I fidget in my seat to try to stay awake and count how many times the minister pulls his trouser hem over the hairy bit of leg showing above where his sock starts. The ministers are mostly professors at the college, or maybe it’s the other way around, most of the local ministers are also the college’s professors. Two ministers sit in chairs on the stage with a little table between them for glasses of water, their Bibles, and a basket for collecting the questions people write down. If someone holds out a folded piece of paper, a deacon will come down the aisle and take the question to the basket. Whenever one of the ministers refers to a verse in the Bible, in response to a question or whatever, everyone in the meeting hall turns the pages of their own Bibles simultaneously. It sounds like water splashing over dry rocks for a few seconds while everyone finds the right page so they can read along. These people don’t carry little pocket Bibles; they prefer great big ones with really crinkly-sounding onionskin paper, and I mean everyone brings one with them. The ministers’ socks are not long enough to cover their legs all the way from their shoes to where their pant legs ride up when they are in a sitting position. Maybe they should look for knee-high socks, but if they did, what would I do to keep myself awake?
Sabbath services start at one o’clock Saturday afternoon and go to four-thirty or five, depending on how long-winded the minister is who gives the sermon. We learn in our first service that in the original Greek, the word that became translated as "cross" really should be called "stake." Jesus was crucified on a stake, not a cross. We also learn that the symbol of the cross comes from ancient Egyptian origins, not Christian as most of us have been led to believe, and therefore should not be part of our worship. Because of that the words in our hymnal have been adjusted accordingly, changing "cross" for something more fitting, for example: "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the word of Jesus going on before. . ." The Old Rugged Cross isn’t even in our hymnal for that reason. I guess it would sound funny to sing that "I will cherish the old rugged stake." I wiggle and pull my dress down over my knees until Mother gives me a look. I have to wear dresses all the time now and I have to let my hair grow, because for a girl to dress or wear her hair like a boy is an abomination in the eyes of God. I don’t like it, but maybe this is a start on being good. So I try to at least act like I like it. Maybe someday I really will. When church is over we go home and socialize until the sun goes down when the Sabbath ends and we can play again. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday no work or play is allowed and I spend the time contemplating why God cares how long our hair is.
Lindsey brings her date for the day to our apartment for socializing, and we eat potato chips and onion dip and drink beer. At least this church doesn’t believe beer is a sin, thank God for small favors. Mother lets Mandy and me each have a small juice glass of beer with our snacks. This is a great way to use up the time between church and sunset. When we first arrived here I hardly recognized Lindsey. She is letting her hair grow and stopped dying it black, so she looks much softer than before and of course she doesn’t wear makeup any more. For someone who loves to rebel and push all the limits, this is a really strange place for her to come. She had to quit smoking, too, as did Mother. I wonder if she still sneaks a cigarette once in a while. Lindsey, I mean.
Our apartment is in one of the buildings down the hill. I have never seen cockroaches before, but they scurry to hidden crevices whenever we turn on the light in the kitchen. Mother says we have to keep everything squeaky clean to keep them away. If we don’t leave them any snacks anywhere, she says they will move out for greener pastures. Ironically, the church has given her a job in the housekeeping department, teaching college women to keep their dorms and future homes clean and in order. We have two small bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room. After our things arrive in the moving van we make it as cheerful and homey as we can, given what we have to work with.
December 24 arrives but it feels like The Twilight Zone. Seeing Christmas lights strung around town among palms and trees that still have all their leaves on them seems ridiculous. What self-respecting Santa would deign to bring his reindeer into this tropical jungle devoid of snow? Would they even be able to fly here? Or is it so warm they would melt? And, trying to not notice that it is Christmas Eve is impossible. Losing Christmas adds to the hole inside me that used to contain all I have lost. I know I chose to do this, but it still feels like a big hole inside me. When a clerk at the grocery store yesterday wished us Merry Christmas and Mother replied that it wouldn’t be any different from any other workday, I could have died right then and there. Without her eyebrow pencil and lipstick she looks colorless and stern, anyway, but this seemed to make it all worse. Mandy says she is doing what she has to do. I guess she is, but I’m still mortified. On this night, one tiny part of my hearing mechanism stays tuned for sounds of jingle bells, just in case, in spite of it being a sin. I can’t help it. I’m nine years old and being good is not as easy as it sounds.
It is raining. When it rains in southern California in December, it rains steadily for days on end. Skies stay gray and gloomy. Plinks and gurgles of water channeling through the downspouts sing us a wet city lullaby. Harder rain hits the windows and pavement with a sound like corn popping or grease spattering in a skillet of frying chicken. I lay in my bed listening to the rain after Mandy and Mother are asleep and wonder if I can make myself not think at all. If I hold very still and picture my brain doing the same thing, holding still, the constant patter of stray thoughts begins to slow down. Every time I feel the least little bit of a thought starting to quiver itself into existence, I sweep it away to the dark corners of my mind with a little mental broom. It actually works, much to my amazement, and I play with this new trick for several minutes before dropping off into blank-minded sleep. Sometimes when my thoughts all feel too sad to keep thinking them, this seems to be a secret retreat I can make to give my mind and heart a rest.
The Sunday after the Christmas that wasn’t, we pack a picnic of cold chicken and potato salad and a store-bought cake (white sugar and all) and head for the beach. It is southern California, after all. Mandy navigates from crumpled maps, Mother misses only two turnoffs, and we eventually arrive at Cabrillo Beach Park. The rain has not stopped, so we grab our food and run for a picnic table covered with a roof. We are dressed in shorts and sleeveless tops for playing in the sun and sand and are soon shivering and wrapping up in beach towels while we eat. We watch huge, angry-looking waves pounding into the soggy sand. When we open the box containing our cake, we are dismayed to find it is covered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of the tiniest black ants I’ve ever seen. We had left it sitting on the kitchen counter last night, thinking nothing would bother it in its box. Well, California has some very determined and apparently very hungry insects that you don’t always know are there, but they are, awaiting the right opportunity. Maybe they will die from the white flour and sugar, but it doesn’t look like it will be any time soon. We have to throw the entire cake into the trash bin. I know Mother is trying to make this new life fun for us, but today just doesn’t make it. Holy stromboli. I don’t think California likes us very much.
I am led into one of the rooms of an old house that has been converted into a school and given a seat with an attached desk. There are fourteen other fourth graders. I make fifteen. I have been coached by Mother and Mandy that I will be required to say "yes, sir" and "no, ma’am," and the words sound jerky and stilted coming off my tongue. "Yes, sir. We moved here from Colorado." "No, ma’am. I don’t like baseball much. But I love to draw horses," which draws snickers from the other kids. I am introduced to Tammy Terrell, a mousey girl with long, curly light brown hair of which she tends to chew a tendril. Tammy likes to draw horses, too, I am told. The "yes" and the "sir" are pronounced distinctly with a small hitch in the sibilance so there are two separate words, not run together like "yessir." I fear that if I get in a hurry, they won’t hear me say them, and at this school paddling kid’s behinds is part of the program. I don’t want to be humiliated before I have a chance to learn what is expected of me.
Our teachers are mostly students at Global Ministries College and we have a different teacher for each subject. In Colorado we wouldn’t have gotten different teachers until junior high. The subjects are English, arithmetic, geography, reading, spelling, music and Bible. All pretty familiar except for that last one. In Bible class we are expected to memorize verses and passages from the Bible, like the twenty-third Psalm and Exodus chapter twenty, which contains the long version of the Ten Commandments, not just the quickie "Thou shalt not’s." I find that the level of the subjects I’ve had before are all a bit behind where I was in Colorado, so the material is mostly easy for me. But I haven’t ever done any memorizing before and Bible is somewhat of a struggle until I get the hang of it. The hang comes pretty abruptly when James Humphrey Watkins is marched to the front of the class and told to bend over and grab his ankles, because after three attempts he still doesn’t know all of Exodus chapter twenty. The teacher gets out a wooden paddle about sixteen inches long and smacks James Humphrey four times so hard on his bottom he almost falls down. I think I get it. Stay up all night or whatever it takes to make sure you learn your lessons.
After recitations are over, the rest of Bible class is spent reading passages from the Old Testament. I learn that there is a whole chapter in Leviticus devoted to a full explanation of all the church’s holidays, which are referred to as holy days. Maybe that’s where the word "holidays" comes from in the first place.
The school in the old house doesn’t have a cafeteria serving hot lunches like my old school had. Here, we bring sack lunches from home and sit on the grass to eat, fourth grade girls more or less in one cluster and boys in another. Tammy sits down closer to me than the other girls and says in a small voice that she really likes horses and hopes to own one someday. I ask her if she has read Ride Like an Indian or David and the Phoenix. She hasn’t, so I offer to bring one of them the next day for her to borrow. She smiles and the piece of wet hair she is chewing falls out of her mouth. Joline Pratt says she likes anything written by Zane Gray or Louis L’Amour and I tell her that I haven’t read any of those.
"Are you really living here without your dad or brother?" Joline asks.
"We are. My mom was married before so we can’t live with them anymore." I am eternally grateful to Joline for showing an interest in my previous life, even just this little bit.
Joline nods knowingly, her warm brown eyes alight with compassion. "That’s too bad."
There isn’t much to say to that so I ask her what grade she was in when she started going to this school.
"I haven’t been to any other school. I started in first grade," she says. I think she might know the ropes around here pretty well if she’s been here that long.
The teacher claps his hands telling us lunch is over and we line up to go to recess. Today we play kickball, which I haven’t played before. I am one of the last kids chosen for a side--no one knows yet whether I’m a good player or not--and I have to learn the rules of the game as well as try to play it. We play on the tennis courts that sit in the middle of the running track on the college’s athletic field. I’m not particularly coordinated in kicking the ball when it is rolled over home plate to me, but I manage to send it spinning off to one side far enough away that I can get to first base safely. While I wait my time to run to second base I see Mandy coming out in gym shorts and a tee shirt with four or five high school girls. It’s so good to see a familiar face that I forget to watch the next kicker and am still on first when Joline gets there from her turn at "bat." "Run, Midge," she says. "Hurry to second base." So I hurry off only to have the red rubber ball thrown smartly against my arm, making an out for our team and a red splotch on my arm.
After school, many of the kids stay and wait for parents to get off work and pick them up, so we have a couple of hours to kill outside of the classroom. I tell Tammy all about Ride Like an Indian and David and the Phoenix. Joline sits on the front step of the school house reading a Zane Gray book. Every once in a while she smiles and wheezes an appreciative chuckle over some particularly good part of the story.
Tetherball is popular with the after school kids, as is four-square. Both are games of skill with balls, one tied to a rope on a pole that you try to wind all the way up before your opponent can, and one in which each quarter of a large painted circle contains one player who tries to hit the ball into someone else’s "square" in such a way that they cannot successfully return it. Most of the boys are really good at four-square. Dianna Crosby is the best ball player of the fourth grade girls, and not even the boys can beat her at tetherball. I haven’t played much with balls before, so I just watch to try and figure out the rules before I think about joining in.
Joline’s dad comes for her. "Don’t be late tomorrow," she says as she climbs into the back seat. "Mr. Sanders will give swats if you’re late."
"Yikes. I’ll make sure we’re on time," I say. "See you tomorrow. Have a nice night."
By the end of the day I am exhausted from continuously adapting to new situations, figuring out the hierarchy, and being on the lookout for causes for paddling. Mandy chatters during dinner about her new classmates. There are only six kids in the eighth grade, so she doesn’t have to get to know a whole bunch. One of the girls, Annie, is a Christoff, niece to Mr. Charleton H. She and Mandy hit it right off and became great friends already. In gym Mandy discovered that she likes to run track. She seems to be fitting right in.
"I have two new friends," I offer. "Tammy Terrell likes horses and draws them, and Joline Pratt is nice and has been here since first grade. James Humphrey Watkins got swatted with a big wooden paddle because he had tried three times and still didn’t know all of Exodus chapter twenty, and we have to get to school in plenty of time tomorrow because Mr. Sanders is first period teacher who will give swats if we’re late."
"This is serious, Mandy," I glare at her. "Just because you are best friends now with Annie Christoff, I suppose no one will dare give you any swats."
"Now, girls. Be nice," Mother says. "Go on with your story, Midge. Or were you finished?"
"I was next to the last one chosen for kick ball, and I got put out on my first time at base." I keep a watchful eye on Mandy, who stays quiet for the moment. "Danny Greenwood is the only minister’s kid in our class and he seems to be pretty smart. Mr. Greenwood did Bible Study last Wednesday." I leave out the observation that he needs longer socks if he’s going to sit in front of a crowd of people.
Mandy and I do the dishes while Mother puts the leftover food away, then we all have quiet time for an hour or so. I work on memorizing Exodus chapter twenty: "And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that this in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. . . ." This is only the first one of ten commandments. What happened to the simple "thou shalt have no other gods before me?" Holy shazoli. There’s a whole bunch more to learn about being good than I ever dreamed possible.
After the lights are turned out and everyone says "good night" to everyone, I pray: "Dear God, please bless Daddy and Sam. Help them know that we love them even though we left them in the lurch. Please bless Mother and Mandy and Lindsey. And help me figure out how to learn all these Bible verses so I will know how to be good and so I won’t have to get swats at school. Please keep all the horses of the world safe. All the dogs and cats, too, because the animals don’t know what is right and wrong and they might get themselves into trouble accidentally. Thank you very much. Amen."
I don’t care what Mandy says, I hate running. We started running track at the beginning of March after the camellias finished blooming in dozens of shades of pink and red in February. Spring comes really early around here. Everyone is expected to run whether they like it or not, whether they are good at it or not. I don’t and I’m not. There are only about three other students in the fourth through seventh grades that I can beat. I’m not fast and the smog makes my lungs ache. Mother wrote a note telling the teachers that I’m not supposed to run on days when the smog is bad, but a minister called Mother and told her that this was not her decision to make. Teachers know what is best for the kids, not the parents, and she should leave them to do their job. So I have to run even though Mother and I both don’t like it very much. We have a little dirt track that is one-eighth of a mile around, the same one that has the tennis courts in the middle of it, and we sometimes have to run a whole mile, round and round in circles with our lungs burning and aching. Other times we run what are called wind sprints where we run very slowly for half a lap and then as fast as we can go for fifty yards, then back to a slow jog, then fast, then slow, never stopping to walk or catch our breath. I don’t know how they got that name, because there isn’t any wind left in us after we’ve done this for a while.
One nice thing about the track is that when Tammy Terrell came to spend the night Mother let us walk to the athletic field from our apartment and we played that it was a horse racing track. Now that was fun. We let the horses do the running and all we had to do was imagine them. The horses Tammy draws are way better than the ones I draw, but I will never, ever admit that out loud. I love the energy and lightness her horses display. Mine tend to be rather solid and I can only draw them from the side. Tammy can do all different angles and positions. Everyone tells me that mine are best, but inside I know that hers are. I can’t get on paper what she can, even though I can see it in my mind’s eye. Once in a while Tammy and I play horses after school, but the kids laugh at us when we do. They make their laughter sound like whinnies. We have read the first three books of The Black Stallion series and both Bambi and Bambi’s Children. In a pinch we can play the Bambi stories if the ridicule gets too intense for playing horses. A couple of sticks with branching ends should work for antlers. I far prefer these games of imagination and acting out to games played with balls, although I do learn to play four-square and not embarrass myself too much.
I get a croupy cough that doesn’t go away in a few days. We in this church do not rely on medical doctors for our healing; like Lobelia used to do, we get anointed with oil by a minister and prayed over. Beyond that we use old country remedies when necessary to hurry along God’s healing. I guess He gets busy sometimes and forgets to get to us right away. Mother makes a mustard plaster for me. It is a thick paste mixed from dry yellow mustard and water, spread onto a dish towel. She places the plaster on my bare back because she says that’s closer to my lungs than my front is and covers it all with a couple of folded dry towels. Soon the mustard begins to heat up. Have you ever tasted hot Chinese mustard sauce? It is made from dry yellow mustard and cold water. I have to leave the plaster on for twenty minutes of scalding before Mother washes me off in the bathtub. When the cough persists, she calls in a lady who says I need to have a flushing. I have to drink a whole bottle of Phillips Milk of Magnesia before going to bed. It tastes thick and chalky and I gag and almost throw it up before I get the whole thing swallowed. In the morning this lady comes and sets up a contraption by the bathtub with a five-gallon bucket of water and a rubber hose with a long thing on the end that has a hole in it for the water to come through. I feel queasy from the milk of magnesia, but I’m put into the bathtub and the long thing with the hole in it is inserted up my butt, not unlike an enema but a whole lot more intimidating. The rubber hose has a little metal flipper on it that the lady can use to control how much water she lets into my colon. The idea of this is to wash out old poop that has gotten stuck inside and is contributing to making me sick. I think I am being abused and tortured, and I throw up a time or two during the ordeal, but after the flushing my cough goes away. I guess it got scared of having to go through that again and it ran.
It is time for Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. We have to clean our house thoroughly and get rid of every crumb of yeast- or baking powder-leavened bread, cookie, cracker or biscuit, just like it explains in Exodus chapter thirteen, verses six through ten. This is where God is almost ready to get the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and he’s giving them his final instructions. God is planning to kill the firstborn child of every household that doesn’t mark the lintels of the front door with the blood of a lamb, and that is going to convince Pharaoh once and for all to let these people go. Once that happens, the children of Israel have to be ready to leave, and they can’t take any leavened bread with them or make any new for seven days. So we are using a toothbrush to get all the crumbs out of the toaster and a vacuum cleaner to get all the crumbs out of the back corners of our cupboards, because it says that we are to "keep this ordinance in his season from year to year." If regular housecleaning is no fun, this is the pits. We have to be done by sundown because the first day of the Days of Unleavened Bread and the last day of the seven are holy days when we can’t do any work or play. And it all kicks off tonight with Passover, but I can’t go to that. Only baptized church members attend the Passover service. I will stay with Mandy at home tonight and go to church services tomorrow.
Besides cleaning every nook and cranny, we are fixing food to take to the pot luck lunch tomorrow. Mother found some nice little finger-sized peppers that we haven’t seen before at the produce market. She bought a pound of them a few days ago along with celery, onions and white potatoes. The peppers were yellow when she bought them and have turned mostly red in the interim. She’s making a potato salad and is adding the peppers as a nice California touch. When she starts cutting them up the air fills with noxious fumes and our eyes start watering--even mine, and I’m clear back in the bathroom cleaning. Mandy catches the brunt of it because she’s at the kitchen sink with the toaster turned upside down and a toothbrush stuck up its slots. We open all the windows and fan the fumes out of the apartment while Mother finishes the potato salad and crimps a foil covering tightly over the bowl. There isn’t time to make anything else, so someone will get a big California surprise when they taste our salad tomorrow. We make sure we know what our bowl looks like so we won’t accidentally take any. Holy guacamole. California grows some hot peppers.
The sermon the next morning is all about the children of Israel trying to get out of slavery in Egypt, and it’s a pretty good story. It seems that the Israelites got stuck there after Joseph ended up being a big-wig in Pharaoh’s court just like he dreamed when he was young. His brothers sold him out because their dad liked him best. He ended up in prison in Egypt until he accurately interpreted a disturbing dream Pharaoh had and saved Egypt and the surrounding tribes from starvation due to planning ahead for a big famine that came seven years later. His brothers came to beg for food from Joseph, not knowing he was their brother until he told them, and all of his family moved to Egypt to be with Joseph. Apparently everyone who was anybody forgot about Joseph and what he did for the Egyptians back in the day, and his family’s many descendants were handy to force into helping build pyramids. The brothers’ children’s children’s children were the ones who were slaves when Moses came along to get them out of that mess.
After Moses asked God to send a bunch of plagues against the stubborn Pharaoh, they came down to the final straw, killing all the firstborn of those without blood on their lintels. The death angel who slew the firstborn went right by the households where he saw the blood, and the firstborn of the obedient children of Israel were spared. This is where Passover came from because the angel of death passed over the houses with blood. That very night the Israelites were packed and ready to go like they had been told, and when Pharaoh told them to get the hell out of there and leave him alone, they scrammed, eating unleavened bread as they went in ranks of five. God gave them a pillar of cloud to lead them in the daytime and a pillar of fire to give them light at night. Maybe the pillar didn’t quite know what to do with all these people, because he didn’t lead them directly anywhere they wanted to go. It took them forty years of wandering in the wilderness to reach a destination only a few hundred miles away. Today and for the next week we are celebrating and remembering this important occasion.
At noon everyone meets on the tennis courts where tables are set up with all the food the women brought. There is fried chicken and sliced leg of lamb and barbeque beef ribs and salads of all descriptions--and I mean all descriptions, if you know what I mean--and Rye Krisp and flat bread and pies and cookies and fruit and cheese and wine in gallon jugs. We fill our paper plates with this delicious bounty and eat in the shade of surrounding trees, socializing with our church brethren.
When lunch is over, we go back into the meeting hall for another round of sermons, hymns and praying. This time we learn that leavening represents sin and the puffing up of vanity and ego, and leaving Egypt eating unleavened bread represents leaving the bondage of sin behind us. It’s not nearly as entertaining a story, and I think I fall asleep part way through.
After services Mother takes us out for a dinner treat with some of our saved-up second tithe. We go to the Big Boy restaurant clear over on the eastern side of Pasadena on Colorado Boulevard. When our hamburgers arrive, hot and fragrant, I’m just ready to take the first bite when Mother says, "Stop!" Mouth open, eyes the size of saucers, I stare at her, my burger beaconing fractions of an inch beyond my waiting teeth. "We can’t eat these," she goes on, "there’s leavening in the buns!" Now, how could we have missed so obvious a detail? We scrape all the bread off our burgers and eat the meat, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and sauce with our French fries, being careful not to take any crumbs that might contain leavening with us on our clothes.
That week we take lunches of flat bread sandwiches with lettuce, cheese, tomato, and mayonnaise to school, and at home we eat appetizers of Rye Krisp spread with cream cheese and grape jelly, thinking all the while about how we are leaving sin behind us--as long as we can remember to not order buns.
The last Sunday before school is let out for the summer we have our track and field day at school. Mrs. Bentley, the principle’s wife, makes all beef chili dogs and homemade lemonade for the concession stand. Events take place all day, with races for the youngest kids first and high school kids last. Every single student in the school is put into a race with his or her peers, matched as well as can be expected with kids of similar talents. My race, a fifty yard dash for slow fourth graders, is just before lunch and I come in third, or second to last. I am handed my little white ribbon and go get a chili dog and lemonade. On the infield in the spaces left over from the tennis courts are setups for high jumping, long jumping and pole vaulting. Events for these skills are held all day simultaneously with the races and tennis matches, mostly for high school kids and the younger kids who are very athletic. When it is time for the high school girls’ races I’m surprised to not see Mandy participate, but when the fastest eighth grade boys run their hundred yard dash, there she is. Apparently she is so much faster than all the girls her age that she has to run with the boys--the fastest boys--and she comes in second. Obviously she got all the speed in the family and didn’t leave any for me.
When the day is over, Mother needs to run an errand and asks Mandy to stay at the athletic field with me until she comes back to get us. We sit in the bleachers rehashing the day’s events until we get bored with it, and wander down to the tennis courts. Someone has left several rackets and balls from matches played earlier. We each choose a racket and a couple of balls and begin playing around with hitting the ball back and forth to each other over the net. Most of our time is spent chasing errant balls, but we have fun and are reluctant to stop when Mother comes back for us. I start hanging around on the tennis courts after school instead of playing on the grass, and often I find a racket and balls. Even if there is no one else to play with, there is a backboard for improving one’s strokes, and I spend hours slapping the ball against the practice wall. Whap-boink, whap-boink, whap-boink. We don’t celebrate birthdays anymore, but Mother buys me an inexpensive wooden racket at Montgomery Ward about the time I turn ten, and now I can practice at home against the garage wall. As my logged time adds up and my stroke count increases, I think about the children of Israel leaving Egypt. I am kind of like them, wandering in a strange wilderness of rules and regulations and taboos, and I think I need a pillar of fire to light my way. I hope it doesn’t take me forty years to get where I want to go, even if I knew where, exactly, that is.
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