My Christmas present was hiding under Kelly’s single bed. I lay flat on my tummy and peered into the dark place. Coloring books, socks, shorts, some Legos, and two rectangular boxes took up most of that space, but all the way back against the wall, I saw a pair of yellow eyes.
“Minny, minny, meeyew,” I called to my first all-for-me pet. Footsie (like all dogs we had) was a family pet, but the hiding kitty was all for me, a present from Aunt Dolores, who was married to a vet. As soon as my aunt had stepped inside the house to visit Momma, she announced that she had a special gift for me. Aunt Dolores placed a large striped box on the coffee table, and as soon as I lifted the top, a black blur of fur jumped out, jetted down the Terrazzo hall straight into the middle bedroom and under my sister’s bed.
When my cat calls did not convince the gift to emerge, Kelly handed me half a vanilla wafer. “Try this.” I ignored the offering and ran to the kitchen for a small bowl of milk. Momma, fixing fresh Community coffee for her sister, warned me, “Do not spill a DROP on the carpet.” Aunt Dolores smiled and added, “Bon chance, Ginger.”
I maintained a steady pace and looked straight ahead and not at the sloshing bowl just like Lee Ester had taught me to carry a tray of coffee cups, cream. and sugar to grown-ups. I did feel a drop or two on my bare toes so I moved slower.
Gayle and Kelly had stayed in the bedroom, and almost all of Kelly except her two feet was underneath the bed now.
“Move outta there,” I said.
“I’m petting him,” said Kelly from beneath the bed.
“Just pull him out by his paws,” said Gayle.
“Coullion!” I said at first but on second thought told my middle sister, “You could pull Kelly out by her feet.” Gayle obeyed immediately so I stood out of their way as they shoved and fussed playfully.
“I know what my kitty wants,” I said and placed the milk on the floor. “Minnie, minnie, meeyew.” A weak “Meow” answered me, yet the cat did not move.
Kelly jumped on the bed thinking to scare the cat out, so Gayle joined her. The two held hands as they jumped up and down.
“Get off and get out!” I said. “Y’all are just scaring him to death.” My sisters stopped jumping but stayed on the bed.
“It’s our room,” said Gayle.
“Yeah! And it’s my bed,” said Kelly.
“Look, we gotta give him time to wanna come out,” I said. The two bed jumpers stared back at me.
“Y’all want Aunt Dolores’s peanut butter cookies?” Momma called from the kitchen and both younger girls jumped off the bed and ran to the kitchen.
I let out a sigh and sat on the floor with a couple of stuffed bears. I had patience galore, and I leaned against a bookshelf. I caught the super soft zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the central heater kicking on.
You had to be patient. One does not make real change over night. I took a large leather bound book from the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall book case in the study and pushed my dark round glasses up a bit. A wild haired child sat on the floor rocking a rag doll. I sat next to the girl who jumped at my approach. “It’s ok, Helen. I have an idea,” I said and sat on a foot stool beside the child. The girl was deaf and blind, and I put my right hand over her left one and used sign language letters to communicate. Helen touched my face and then mimicked my hand motions. I guided one of her hands to my face and nodded to let her know she’d spelled the word correctly. She moved her fingers to create the letters again. I smiled and squeezed her hand before moving it towards my face again so she could feel my smile. Helen rewarded me with her own smile. I leaned over to kiss the top of her unkempt head. Helen made a purring sound and leaned into me.
The shiny black cat had left his hiding place to lap up my milk offering. His fur felt like silk and his tail curled into a regal question mark. After his snack, he thanked me with a few sandpaper licks. “Lookit you,” I said as I scratched my pet behind the ears.
“I’ll call you ‘Christmas’ because you’re the best Christmas gift I ever got.”
I pampered my pet like royalty, and several months later I shortened her name to Chrissy when she gave birth to five mewing kittens.
I used tiny tweezers to remove the sick man’s spare ribs. The procedure ran smoothly until Kelly leaned over my shoulder and nudged me. “Brizzit!” sounded and the patient’s red nose lit up.
“My turn,” said Gayle, so Kelly leaned back and looked down at her folded legs. I had no desire to scold Kelly because tomorrow was my for real operation.
Momma and I would drive to a Baton Rouge hospital where doctors would perform corrective surgery on my skinny left arm. This time they planned to give me supination – the ability to make my wrist muscles move and allow me to turn my left hand over and face palm up. This would be the third operation on my crippled hand. The first surgery put a straight pin in my left thumb at the second knuckle to give me better fine motor control. The second took three incisions and gave me the power to bend my wrist up and down. Before then my stupid left hand stayed bent and locked downwards.
The doctors predicted the supination surgery had a 64% success rate. I felt nervous. The worst part of surgery was throwing up after the operations; however, Momma would be there to wipe my mouth and face with a cold rag and hold back my hair while I vomited in a metal container. The pas bon feeling lasted less than two hours, and then I ate popsicles, opened presents, and read get well cards. My left arm would be in a plaster cast for weeks, but I was used to keeping my left arm in a supporting role. The big difference with this operation was I would miss a week of school.
Sister B. had embarrassed me in front of my fifth grade class on Friday. Right before we lined up for mass Sister said, “All of you need to pray for Ginger today. She is having surgery on Monday to fix her crippled arm. We want God and the Blessed Virgin to watch over her.” I had stared at carvings on my wooden desk and allowed myself two quick blinks before I realized a third blink would leave wet drops on my desk’s “Scools dum” proclamation.
“You’re lucky to miss so much school,” a friend told me at recess, and a popular girl who rarely noticed me, said,”You scared about them cutting up your arm?”
“I don’t wake up until it’s over,” I said.
“Does it still hurt?” she said as her index finger touched the wrist scar where you could count the six stitches from my second surgery.
“Nah,” I said and followed my friend towards the playground.
At home in our living room I now watched Gayle remove the Adam’s Apple, funny bone, and wish bone from the electrically-charged Operation patient on the floor between us.
“My turn!” said Kelly.
“Wait!” said Gayle as she focused on removing the Broken Heart.
“No! No!” said Kelly as her sister’s tweezer made the game go “Brizzit!” Kelly readied herself to win the game, so I left my sisters without a word. I went to my room to read away my consternation.
When I began reading chapter books at age ten, I looked forward to being alone – on my bed against my flowered bed rest. Books about talking animals, strange gardens, or brave kids took me to cool places like movies did. I enjoyed conflicts that sent characters in crazy directions before returning them to clever, satisfying resolutions. This afternoon I had Pippi Longstocking to laugh with and admire. However, I read only four pages before Kelly burst into my room with Gayle in hot pursuit. Kelly locked the door just before Gayle pounded the wood with her palms and moved the door knob back and forth.
“You chicken cheat! Open up!” yelled Gayle.
Kelly stared at me with her dark eyes, gave me a small smile, and then backed against the door like the peyank she was.
“Come on, Ginger! She cheated!” said Gayle through the door as she pounded.
“Quiet it down! Don’t y’all make me get up!” said Dad from his bedroom across the hall. We knew better than to rouse a napping Dad, so Gayle had two choices: to tattle to Momma or to find other amusement.
After Gayle gave up, Kelly jumped on the bed a few times and claimed the pillow to my right. “Pippi is my favorite,” she said, waiting for me to read aloud.
“She and Mr. Nilsson headed to the South Seas to find her sea captain father,” I explained.
“Show me the pictures,” said Kelly who flipped the pages backwards. I read with different voices and appropriate animation for over two chapters before I felt Kelly’s head fall slack on my shoulder. Kelly settled in and opened her left fist to release a tiny plastic heart.
I touched the scar between my own elbow and wrist. I heard Momma vacuuming the big living room and the back and forth appliance sounds took on a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm.
I adjusted a tan tunic as I followed the odd old man walking quickly through the stone streets of ancient Rome. The large sweaty man wore a tomato-colored toga and talked fast on his way to meet someone important. His round face smiled like a snake or frowned like an ogre. He stopped by a group of men around a small wooden table and pulled out a container of dice. “Who feels lucky?” he said. I leaned in to watch because I needed as much luck as I could find. Tomato Red shook out two dice that equaled seven and the men watching him groaned; Red shook and released the dice again. He rolled another seven and got more complaints. Then a short curly haired man twitching with anxiety came up and glared at Red who grabbed some coins and his dice. Curly turned and stormed off with Red with me close behind. The men huddled together and exchanged hurried, urgent words. I believed these two knew where I could find mule sweat. I needed this potent ingredient for tomorrow’s ceremony. I would become an elegant princess if I drank the soothsayer’s prescribed potion. A short, sad faced man wearing a purple hat and tunic approached me from behind, “Excuse me, but are you my long lost daughter?” Before I could answer, Red and Curly showed up and led us all to a comedy parade. Red burst into song and people in the street danced: “Something appealing/ Something appalling/ Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!” Folks with bongos beat out the rythmn of the song.
Pad. Pound. Pad. Pound. “Ginger, come on,” said Gayle in a low voice. “Let me in. Please, please.” And she continued the soft door pads. I left the bed, careful not to wake my youngest sister, and let in the middle sister. “I got nothin’ to do,” said Gayle. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled out a deck of cards. She divided the cards into two stacks. “Wanna play?”
I sat next to her. “Just don’t wake Kelly.”
Gayle made the stacks equal and we began a game of battle. I let the face cards and numbers distract me until I amassed a much larger pile than Gayle’s. I relaxed inside and believed this lucky streak could follow me all the way to Baton Rouge General Hospital tomorrow.
I slid into my front row seat and let the sounds and the seventeen-foot images envelope me. My sisters had opted to sit fourteen rows behind because Kelly did not “wanna be close to the boogie man.” Gayle volunteered to sit with her, and I knew she shared Kelly’s nervousness.
Sitting alone was not my first choice, but I could enjoy my Tootsie Roll uninterrupted. I didn’t allow myself to open my candy before the feature began, so I focused on the ripple effect of Big Jim’s rounds as kids started behaving as he swayed his 400 pounds left and right down towards the screen, walked past the front row, and resumed the left/right motion back up to the lobby and his usher’s chair near the lobby’s water fountain. His flashlight jumped around as he discovered and corrected feet on the backs of seats, trash tossed to the floor, or unnecessary talking.
As The Raven’s credits began, and the audience settled down for the Saturday matinee, I unwrapped my chocolate-flavored treat allowing myself one chunk of the taffy-like candy every ten minutes. With ten sections in a roll, the candy should last for the whole movie. But since I didn’t possess an accurate sense of time, I usually finished a Tootsie Roll half way into a movie.
The only concession stand candy that could last a full feature was the hockey puck sized Giant Sweet Tart – a single hard Sweet Tart as thick as it was wide. (made in 1965-66). My favorite was the grape one, and I first used my front teeth like a beaver. If I later licked the endless amount of sour/sweet goodness when I tired of scraping off its powdery goodness, my candy lasted for the whole movie! This Saturday afternoon I opted for a Tootsie Roll because my tongue and the insides of my cheeks were still healing after the Giant Tart I had last week. (Mouth ulcers were an unfortunate downside to gnawing on 3.5 ounces of sugar for ninety minutes).
Vincent Price’s voice recited the beginning stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” as I chewed my first section of Tootsie Roll. “Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary” was familiar because Daddy liked to entertain us with the classic poem. He knew the first two stanzas by heart but made up the rest of the poem adding original gruesome rhymes of his own.
The Raven, 1965
On this Saturday afternoon, I enjoyed the poem’s opening lines, but the movie’s mood went from ominous to comical six minutes in. After Vincent Price let the raven through his chamber door, the bird did not keep repeating, “Evermore,” but started asking for a glass of wine in a British accent. Several minutes later, Vincent fixed a magic potion to return the bird to its human form. Jaunty sound effects accompanied the scene as the bird directed Vincent to fill a bubbling cauldron with dead man’s hair and lizard’s tongue. After drinking the brew, the raven transformed only partly. A buggy-eyed man’s head replaced the bird head, yet the rest of his short, pudgy body was feathers and wings. The easy audience laughed, but I wanted to be scared. The poem Daddy recited to us had the sorrow and darkness of a man tortured by the death of his wife. The raven was supposed to drive the man insane, not boss him around like a bratty wino.
I was chomping on my third section of chocolate taffy when I heard a familiar scream. (Not, of course, from the horror movie turned comedy).
“I’m bleeding!” was followed by “Shhhhh! Wanna make Big Jim come over?”
I recognized my little sisters’ voices and left my front row seat to check out the drama. Kelly and Gayle sat in the middle of their row while folks nearby tried to shush Kelly.
“Blood!” said Kelly. “Lookit!”
“Kelly, come here,” I told the five-year-old from my squat position in the aisle.
“Ginger?” said Kelly as she passed both annoyed and interested kids on her way to me. Gayle followed and we made our way to the lobby with me holding Kelly’s hand.
Big Jim stood next to his usher chair and watched us walk toward the red lobby bench a few yards from him. We knew Big Jim was a loyal employee of Grandma’s and he cared about our safety, but he still weighed 400 pounds and wore a very long belt.
I heaved the whimpering Kelly onto the red lobby seat and checked out her injuries. I saw no blood.
“Lookit,” said Kelly, and she opened her mouth and simultaneously held out a small hand holding a tiny bloody tooth. “Blood.”
I pulled a crumpled concession napkin from my shorts pocket and placed pressure on the place where the missing lower front tooth had been. “Press down here,” I instructed.
“Ya’ll need help?” said Big Jim who moved closer to us. Gayle climbed on the lobby bench to help Kelly stop the bleeding.
“We’re ok, Mr. Jim,” I said.
Gayle leaned in to put her hand over Kelly’s. “Push real hard,” she said.
“Owwww!” said Kelly.
When Big Jim realized how minor our emergency was, he returned to his usher chair sitting on its arm rests and said, “OK, but ya’ll let me know if you do.”
Big Jim almost knocked down a small boy who had followed us into the lobby. For the kid the possibility of seeing real blood trumped the movie’s lack of anything remotely scary. He held a cherry-flavored Giant Sweet Tart in a sticky fist and licked the candy as he stared at Kelly. His bright red tongue made his mouth look bloodier than my sister’s. He seemed too young for the black-rimmed glasses he wore, and his blond crewcut revealed a lumpy little head. After avoiding a Big Jim collision, the boy stepped closer to Kelly. He still believed there would be blood. This close I thought I saw blood on the boy’s tongue.
“What you want?” said Gayle to the gawker.
The kid blinked several times and licked his messy candy. My sisters did a stare-off with him. I moved both of my sisters’ hands to discover Kelly’s mouth had stopped bleeding.
“Let’s go get you a drink of water,” I said and put Kelly on my hip.
All three of us crossed in front of Big Jim towards the water fountain. I placed Kelly on the top step of the wooden block that acted as stairs to give short kids access to the coldest water they had ever tasted. Kelly still had to get on her tippy toes for her mouth to kiss the metal spout. I stood to the right of the water fountain and pushed the spring-loaded handle that started a trickle of water. Kelly slurped several gulps before Gayle said, “Ok, my turn.” Kelly kept slurping until Gayle nudged her back. But just when Kelly decided she’d had enough and Gayle put her foot on the next step, the Sweet Tart boy cut in. He used his knotty head to butt his way in front of Gayle, and I had to pick Kelly up so she would not fall off the wooden step-up.
“Hey!” said Gayle. “I’m next.”
But the boy had pocketed his cherry candy mess, stood on his toes, and turned the handle to produce the weakest dribble of water possible. He made desperate slurping sounds and I could relate to the cool relief he must feel on his abused tongue. Gayle, on the other hand, felt no empathy for someone who cut in front of her.
“It’s my turn!” she said as she shoved the kid off the wooden steps. The boy toppled over, his glasses flew off, and he bit his swollen tongue during his fall. He tumbled his way to half a foot from Big Jim’s untied cheap shoes.
“What are ya’ll up to?” said Big Jim. He pulled the boy up by his right arm and blood bubbled from his lips.
Big Jim stared straight at me and my sisters. He meant business, so Gayle forgot about her thirst and jumped off the water fountain step and hid behind me. Kelly gave the usher a wide-eyed stare as if she imagined Jim’s extra long belt leaving its pants loops.
Then the boy’s extreme scream changed Big Jim’s focus. I couldn’t believe a puny child could create such a sound. The initial, “WHAAAAA!” was high-pitched and steady like our town’s noon whistle. But then he took a deep breath and spit out blood for a string of low toned “Heh! Heh! Heh!’s” that reminded me of Jerry Lewis’ sound effects. Big Jim let go of the little screamer’s arm, and the boy rolled down part of the slanted lobby floor.
With the quick moves of an action hero, Gayle left her spot of safety and ran to stop the boy’s descent. She stopped his rolling and sat down next to him on the faded carpet. Using the napkin that had stopped the bleeding in Kelly’s mouth, she slowed the blood flow from the boys’s mouth. In seconds Gayle held a bloody paper mess. The kid looked up at Gayle’s blurry face. Big Jim had gotten a cleaning rag from the concession stand and handed it to Gayle since he would not be joining the kids on the floor.
Kelly pulled me towards the action where several curious theater goers had gathered, opting for the lobby drama over the lame horror flick. I, understanding the importance of corrective eyewear, picked up the boy’s glasses and handed them to Gayle who put them on the boy’s face with her right hand while she applied pressure to his already swelling mouth. The crowd of spectators kept a respectable distance due to the proximity of Big Jim.
A gangly girl with stringy dark pigtails pushed through the kids. “Booger! What you doing now?” she said and frowned down on her little brother and Gayle. The sister pulled him up and walked toward the bathroom stairs. When they passed, I noticed the boy’s jeans were held up by a large safety pin. The sister frowned down on her younger brother, saying,“Gotta get you cleaned up. Again,” and she shook her head as she dragged the boy away without so much as a “merci beaucoup” to anyone.
“Get on back to your seats,” said Big Jim. The kids obeyed and I watched Gayle return to the water fountain. Kelly decided she needed another drink as well and followed.
Wearing my new blue-framed glasses, I noticed a pink piece of candy on the floor near Big Jim’s chair. The poor boy’s half-eaten Giant Sweet Tart had escaped his pants pocket during his accident. I picked up the sticky mess, but I couldn’t make myself throw it away. I put it in my pocket. My heart was a tangle of pride and sadness, and I decided to sit with my sisters when they finished drinking and walked back into the dark theater.
Going to the camp on Good Friday epitomized “Lassiez les bon temps rouler!” for me. A pre-Easter family reunion meant cousins running all around Grandma Keller’s camp, fresh fried catfish, a softball game in the afternoon, and Stations of the Cross led by Monsignor Jeanmard in the morning, plus the main attraction: about 200 pounds of hot boiled crawfish! The relatives all fought for good standing room when fresh batches were poured over newspaper-covered tables.
Grandma closed the picture show to celebrate with her large family on this special holiday. I wondered why Catholic considered eating seafood on Fridays a penance. Were not shrimp, crab, and crawfish three of the best delicacies on earth? On this Good Friday in 1964, I did not consider the rationale or rules of being a Catholic. Everyone I loved went to mass every Sunday and various holy days of obligation, accepted the necessity of confession, prayed to the Virgin Mary, gave up something they liked during Lent, and went without beef, pork, or chicken on Fridays. And thank you, Jesus, they had crawfish boils on Good Friday!
About 6:30 p.m. I was in the car with Momma, Gayle, and Kelly driving back home. Kelly was fast asleep on the backseat next to me, and Gayle sat in the front seat, as usual. Dad was driving back later with Claude Emile since the males helped clean up all the outdoor cooking mess.
I stared out the back window and Gayle bounced a bit on the front seat. “She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes,” she sang, and Momma half-heartedly joined in. I mouthed the words as if the lyrics were a secret.
The day had been 82% favorable. The softball game made insecurity settle in my eight- year-old heart. When the team captains were choosing kids, I heard a third cousin tell a first cousin, “Don’t pick the crippled one.”
I was used to being last picked at school, but some of my cousins did not know I ran fast despite my weak left side. These kids had known me all my life, and I usually felt at ease with them. Plus, the camp was my favorite place to be.
A few minutes earlier Gina, my closest cousin, had pulled me by my right arm over to the crowd of cousins waiting to be picked. The tallest leader picked Gina early on since she and her eight siblings were known for their athletic skills.
The third cousin’s comment made me hold my stupid left arm behind my back. After several minutes of tense team choosing, I stepped to the side of the other two unpicked kids: a nose-picker and a crew cut cousin who had just then decided to join the game. Third Cousin picked the crew cut latecomer, and one of my popular first cousins chose the nose picker.
I walked head down to third cousin’s side and hid behind the tallest cousins. First cousin’s team was first at bat, and cousin Chickie began arranging the batters from youngest to oldest. Gina took my good hand and led me out toward third base. My team’s captain was the third baseman, and Gina walked past him and pointed to a distant pine tree, “You go play left field for us,” she said and gave me a pat on the back and a soft shoulder nudge.
I kicked pine cones and needles on my way to where the ball never went. I could barely make out my little sister Gayle getting ready to bat at home plate. Overhead, a woodpecker did what it does and the lonesome sound of a fiddler playing mixed with the bird’s taps in a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco way.
I walked down a city street toward a fence-enclosed playground. I wore new navy jeans and a cool red jacket. As I walked, I snapped the fingers of my left hand. My feet kept the beat of a song in the background. My short black hair was slicked back to stay in place. Two boys with similar hair joined me on the street and picked up the rhythm of my snaps and steps. In unison V the Sharks and I kicked, twirled, and jumped to the band’s expectant music. My left leg extended high at hip level and I spun like a ballet performer while my crew and I approached a basketball court. Some kids shot baskets, but the guy with the ball froze when my crew came close. The Shark on my right grabbed the ball and passed it to me. I completed a perfect pirouette and made a basket! The Sharks continued their snapping, side kicks, and twirls towards an alley.
“Look out!” said the guy to my left.
I saw the softball fly over two cousins’ heads and head straight towards me. I held out my ungloved right hand but closed my eyes. The ball plopped a yard to my right.
“Get it! Throw it!” yelled voices. I picked it up and aimed it at jumping Gina, but it landed a few feet from where I stood as the batter headed to third base. I felt every player stare at me and I silently cursed my stupid left arm.
Gina ran to get the ball and threw it towards home plate. I went back to my position and took a knee to pretend to tie my shoe.
Three hours later driving home, I relived my dismal first and last time to join the Good Friday softball game. At bat I struck out both times I was up, and another ball never came close to my outfield area. “I will never ever in a hundred million years play that game,” I promised myself.
“Your turn,” said Gayle. “Pick a song.” My usual optimism brought me back to our car ride home. At least singing didn’t require two good hands, so I choose my favorite song: “You Are My Sunshine.” Gayle and Momma joined me for what I believed was a rousing rendition.
The crawfish boil had disappointed my momma in different ways than it did me. Kelly did not keep still for a second, and Momma had time for maybe five crawfish for herself after peeling several for her youngest daughter and having to help the other mothers with organizing the dessert table. Dad stood around with other crawfish boilers and laughed and talked sports. Momma could hear him entertaining his crowd of men with long jokes that included both Cajun and British accents. When Momma finally got a reprieve from two teenagers who scooped up Kelly to play in the sand box, she had hightailed it to the fried catfish spot where Lee Esther was already cleaning out the cast iron Dutch oven. “You missed the last of it,” Aunt Fanny told her. And the skinny widow walked off with a paper plate full of catfish. Once home she would face a kitchen full of dirty breakfast dishes, baths for three overtired girls, and a load of laundry to fold. Her own mother’s words “It never ends” echoed in her head.
Now driving home the girls’ off-key singing added to Momma’s hunger headache. She made a right turn onto the road that led to Eunice and sighed.
“Ginger, you can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” she told me. She did not notice my quivering bottom lip when I slumped back on the seat and stared out at the pine trees that lined the ditches of the highway.
When I was seven years old I tried my hand at what would become my future profession.
On a late summer afternoon, I smoothed the front of a stiff red and white church dress, brought my tanned shoeless legs together, repositioned my white plastic headband, and looked my class over from the white brick fireplace mantle that raised me three inches above those I’d be instructing that day. Kelly, age three, wearing light blue shorts and a sleeveless white cotton crop top sat barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted living room floor; she held a Big Chief tablet and a red crayon. Gayle, age five, wearing a faded hand-me-down t-shirt with a never worn navy blue school uniform skirt, sat erect on a small wooden chair and tapped her brand new letter-practicing book with a pencil and wriggled her toes as she stretched her feet to touch the legs of a red and yellow plastic chalk board that came with my special surprise birthday gift that year: a Suzy Smart Deluxe Doll Set!
Suzy Smart, dressed in a white blouse under a red plaid jumper and standing two feet tall, completed the class and sat stiffly in her own red and yellow plastic desk. I smiled down at my class of three and held up a piece of chalk to draw a large capital letter “A” on the chalk board.
“Today we practice our A’s.” I established eye-contact with each student and added, “Y’all must draw ten A’s for me. Now go!” Gayle took to the assignment like a Cajun to hot boudin. Having to use her lap was all that kept her from making uniform A’s. Kelly tried her first A, but the slanted lines were uneven and her letter did not look like the teacher’s.
“I’m gonna make the little ‘l’s’,” she said and started covering her first page with a letter she liked.
I focused on the obedient ones. “Good job, Gayle,” I said. Suzy gave me her straight-forward stare. “Nice listening, Suzy.”
Then I knelt down next to Kelly. “Your ‘l’s’ are very good, but we are working on ‘A’s.’ Here. Let me show you how.” I put my hand over her fist and guided the red crayon through the perfect A formation. “Like this.”
Kelly pushed aside a stray strand from a pigtail and said, “OK,” and continued to drew more l’s.
“I said ten letters and you made like fifty-five l’s already. You need to learn your A’s.”
“No A’s in my name.”
“Good! You know how to spell your name, but I’m teaching all the letters today.”
“ ‘A’ is the very first letter,” said Gayle as she completed her tenth “A” and gave us all, including Suzy, proud smiles. She wrapped a long strand of jet black hair behind her ear and waited for further instructions.
“How many letters?” asked Kelly.
Getting a bit of teacher inspiration, I said, “We should sing the A-B-C song!”
The human students stood up to belt out “A,B,C,D,E,F,G…” Susie listened. As Kelly screamed out the final Z, she grabbed Gayle’s hands, and led her in circles for the “Now I know my ABC’s” part.
I knew I was losing control of my class. “OK. Good job, y’all. Now let’s practice the second letter – B.” The dancing pupils added impromptu hip-shaking for the song’s end. “Sit down, class, sit down.” Both obeyed, but first Kelly traded her red crayon for Gayle’s new pencil.
“Hey. Give it back,” said Gayle.
“Just let me borrow it.”
“You suppose to ask.”
“Can I use your pencil?”
“Say pretty please.”
“Pretty please, ya dumb sneeze.”
“She called me ‘dumb,’ Teacher.”
Kelly stuck her tongue out at the snitch. I clapped my hands together. “Class. Y’all gotta listen.” Gayle snatched her pencil back and bounced the crayon off Kelly’s pert pug nose. Kelly grabbed the letter practice book and ran behind me.
“I’m agonna rip this up,” she said. Gayle could not wait for the teacher’s help. She knocked over both Suzy and her desk as she rushed after Kelly.
I tried keeping the girls apart, but Kelly danced behind me and moved the book in circles around her face. “Na! Na! Na! You can’t get me,” she chanted right before Gayle got ahold of her right pigtail. The letter book fell, the chalk board collapsed, and Kelly sprang into fight mode. With me between them, both girls got fistfuls of hair. For several seconds the hair-pulling tug-of-war was a stalemate. Gayle’s longer arms gave her an advantage, but Kelly’s hotter temper made it a fair fight.
“Stop it! Y’all are wrong, wrong! Stop!” I said as I got out from between them. Kelly was biting her stuck-out tongue to concentrate. Gayle held both of her sister’s pigtails when Kelly dropped her sister’s hair strands. Her smaller stature lacked the force she needed to make Gayle release the pigtails, so Kelly leaned back a bit and kicked her left foot high enough to get her foe right in the tee-heinie. The taller girl let go of the shorter one’s hair and fell to the carpet. She put both hands over the place of pain and let loose the “OWWWWW’s”
“That’s what you get,” said Kelly.
Gayle moaned like a dying opossum.
I sat on the wounded girl’s chair in defeat. Kelly tapped a line of dots on the fallen chalkboard as Gayle moaned on the floor. The taps and the owww’s melded into a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm in my head.
I looked out the room’s picture window to see a black and white world. A door marked ‘Fire Escape’ appeared to the right of the window. I walked to and through the door and looked down a narrow London street. Four mop-headed guys rushed past me. I gasped when the last one turned back and said, “Hurry! This way, luv.” I ran to join George and the three other Beatles. An old, clean man with round spectacles passed me. “Outta me way! I’m parading,” he said. I wore a short purple mini-dress and groovy white boots. In my left hand I held a beautician’s comb. “Here I come, George,” I said and sped past the grandpa. I followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo down alleys, through doors, and over fences before I thought, “Why are we running?” Grandpa gained on me and as if to answer my mental question said, “They’re getting closer, lads!” From around the corner sped sixty-two screaming girls! George reached for my right hand and pulled me into a limo parked on the street. I squeezed between George and John. Paul smiled hello and Ringo tapped my knee with his drum sticks. I held on to George’s hand and John tweeked my nose and kissed my cheek. To hide my nervous joy, I started styling their hair. First, I combed George’s and then leaned forward to comb Paul’s and Ringo’s. John pulled his cap low over his hair, so I turned to Grandpa. “I ain’t got much hair, ya cheeky girl, but you could massage me bum,” he said. Paul winked at me and told Grandpa, “Stop being such a mixer now, ya old troublemaker.” The car braked in a flash and we all tumbled out the limo and through a stage door. Cops held back new crowds of hysterical girls. I lost George’s hand but kept up with the band down dark halls, past dusty props, and through curtained passageways. I saw a light ahead and anticipated a magical stage, but going through the final black curtain led me to the white raised brick hearth of my parents’s fireplace.
Kelly and Gayle held tennis rackets and were strumming them like guitars. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” sang Gayle, and Kelly shook her hips and moved her head back and forth fast enough for her bangs to keep rhythm with the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” The rubble of my alphabet lesson littered the living room floor. I began picking up chalk, crayons, a pencil, and writing tablets as my little sisters lost themselves in their music.
I sat on the formerly wounded sister’s chair in defeat and decided teaching was not for me.
“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” yelled a third grader as she got into the robot’s part, waving her arms around like a frantic parent. I got stuck playing a bad guy alien and walked mummy-like toward the girl who had nabbed the prime role of Penny Robinson. I added head jerks and let out,“Beep! Boop! Ding!” in the way an alien would do as I chased the Robinson family. “Run!” yelled the good guys as I followed the retreating kids and raised my arms to seem scarier.
At St. Edmund’s School my classmates and I recreated scenes from hit tv shows at recess. This week’s television obsession was “Lost in Space.” We girls vied for roles each day and half-imitated/ half-made up episodes about the Robinsons in outer space. During this Tuesday’s recess, I did not see the skinny new girl right behind me. Skinny Girl mimicked my spastic left arm movements and limping left leg. A group of first graders giggled and encouraged the newcomer’s accurate imitation of my cerebral palsy crookedness. When I turned to see who was laughing, a popular seventh grader had cut across the playground on her way to the school’s front office and noticed Skinny Girl’s shenanigans.
She yanked the performer by her fake-crippled left arm. “What are you doing?” she demanded. Before the child could answer, Seventh Grader lit into her. “How dare you? Don’t you see she’s crippled? How would you like to have to walk lopsided? You think it’s funny? Funny to be born with a birth defect – to be slower and weaker than everyone else? Wait until I tell Sister Joan what you did!” And all during her lecture Seventh Grader shook the girl’s arm as other kids gathered around. First, they stared at Skinny Girl looking like a dish rag someone was twisting the water out of. Then they looked at me. Pity and sadness shone on each kid’s face. Had they always looked at me that way?
Next Seventh Grader yanked whimpering Skinny Girl to stand in front of me. “Apologize right now!”
The younger girl’s navy blue skirt had a safety pin holding it up at her waist, and all that shaking had pulled the white blouse out of its tucked-in position. I noticed that her hem was frayed and stained. Also, the girl’s thin black hair was half-in rubber band pigtails and half-out. I thought that I should be apologizing to her for the mess of the way she looked.
“Go ahead. Say you’re sorry,” Seventh Grader told her.
The young girl stared at her untied, dirty saddle oxfords and whispered, “Sorry.”
“Louder! So she can hear you.”
“I can hear her,” I said, looking down at my own ugly, scuffed brown corrective shoes.
“You ok?” Seventh Grader asked me, and I nodded without looking up. I knew if I said anything else, I’d be crying through the rest of recess. Skinny Girl was half-dragged towards the front office.
An empathic third grader put her arm around my shoulder, and the whole “Lost in Space” game was shot to shit. “That kid is just a stupid Yankee from Shreveport,” my friend said. I heaved a sigh and felt even sorrier for Skinny Girl.
“Gotta pee,” I said before turning to run to the bathroom. Once safe inside a stall, I felt fortunate that I’d chosen one with a lock that actually worked. The words “crippled” and “birth defect” bounced around my brain over and over: “crippled…defect…defect…defect…crip…crip…defect…defect.” I turned the words into a type of music I heard on KVPI. “defect, defect, deco, deco, zydeco, zydeco, zydeco.”
I tapped my black umbrella on the floor a few times and looked around the mess of a nursery. I removed my neat black hat with white flowers on it and patted my neat brown bun. Two small children looked up at me. “First, we must clean your untidy room,” I said with a confident smile. I snapped the fingers of both hands. Music played, and a robin sang outside the nursery window. As I sang a song about sugar and medicine, I taught the boy and girl how to make their room as neat and sweet as I was. With a whistle here and umbrella taps there, the beds were made, toys were put away, and the room was “practically perfect in every way.” I even had the robin accompany me in the song. The children loved my magic and we became instant best friends. Without warning, the song ended and a long ringing erupted from the hall.
Recess was over. I flushed the unused toilet, wet my fingers in the sink, ran them through my hair, and looked in the mirror to make sure my eyes were dry before I rushed outside to line up outside Sister Grace’s classroom door.