This is the third post from the 8-Minute Memoir Challenge from Ann Dee Ellis. Today’s prompt is “billboards.” For some reason, it came out in second person.
Day 3: Billboards
A billboard of the Coppertone girl in Hollywood Florida in the late 60s. It’s the first one you remember clearly, not because of the tan line on a little blonde girl, but because there was a dog playing with her on the beach, and YOU always wanted a dog. The neighbors had one, a scruffy mutt with gray fur, and it would come over long enough to be petted, roll in the sand, and then run away home.
Sand. Sand everywhere. Hot, stinging sand that seemed to go deeper than you could dig with plastic buckets and shovels. Sand filled with sand spurs that stuck to your skin and broke off, leaving tiny spines buried in your skin. Burying those same spurs just below the surface when Cousin Earl came over because Earl was fond of walking in the bathroom when you were taking a bath and taking a piss into the tub and because Earl never wore shoes, not even sandals. You didn’t wear shoes either, going barefoot twenty-four hours a day, your little feed hardened like calloused stones, impervious to rocks and sticks and heat. You laughing when Earl the Pisser stepped in the sand spurs and cussed. He was the only kid you knew who got away with cussing. Him chasing you across the sand, hopping on one foot, trying to pull the spurs out of his sole. It was not nice trick to pull, but it felt like justice.
Other things about living in South Florida in the late 60s. Asphalt melting during the summers, so hot that you could pick up a rock from the road and stretch out the gooey tar like black putty. That weird kid next-door who like to chew up the asphalt, crunching the small rocks between his teeth, spitting out black goo between his gums. Him climbing the coconut trees on the corner, shinnying up with just his knees and elbows, reaching the coconuts and throwing the big hairy husks at you to catch. You only caught a coconut once: That was enough to teach you to let them hit the ground. Picking up coconuts the and carrying to into the patio and trying to peel them open with screwdrivers. We weren’t allowed to lose knives because you were four. Learning that you couldn’t open a coconut with a screwdriver, but if the neighbor’s daddy used his machete and hammer, he could pop the husk with a couple of hard swings, then hand you the coconut fruit. You caught the milk in a bowl and sharing it, pretending that it tasted sweat, instead of bitter. Using the screwdriver to crack the meat out chewing on a white chunk that seemed small when you put it in your mouth but as big and hairy as a husk when you chewed it.
The trip to the emergency room with a girl from the other side of the duplex, after she fell on the concrete and knocked out her front teeth. You getting stranded outside in the hot car, mad because your McDonald’s was still at home on the stove. Then returning late in the night, define your hamburger and French fries stone cold and not wanting to play with the girl anymore.
Then there was jumping into the grumpy landlord’s yard, a grassy oasis between the Sahara and the grilled asphalt cheese. His sprinklers clattering, you hopping over the water, Earl beckoning you to follow him, and then landing on a fire ant hill. Screaming and running back home yard, stripping off shorts, shirt, underwear, and Mama spraying you with the hose, the water stinging the ant bites all over your feet and ankles, you naked before God and the entire neighborhood but not giving a damn. Then a second rinse, this time in the standup shower in the back of the house. You toweling off and seeing a chocolate bar labeled EX LAX, not knowing that it wasn’t candy, and offering to a piece Earl, who took the whole bar.
Months later, sleeping in the living room, two twin beds, you and your brother, the cool concrete floor, the clattering of palm fronds outside like old bones, wind easing through slanted glass windows that you rolled out every night to catch the breeze from the ocean. That one night when you awakened to the noise of garbage cans clacking and saw a long shadow across the frosted glass. Then the next day, telling Mama that Abraham Lincoln was looking in the window last night—it was Mr. Lincoln because the shadow had a very long hat. You sitting on the front seat between Mama and Daddy when they drove to a pawnshop to buy a gun. Then the next few days going to work with her father at 7-Eleven while Mama was in the hospital with your sister, playing with trucks and toys and getting candy bars for lunch while Daddy managed the store.
Then more cousins arrived, this time from Georgia, coming to visit. Your short-sighted uncle brushing his teeth with Preparation H, then screaming and jumping on your bed when a little ol’ scorpion crawled out from under a rug. The quiet talks between your aunt and Mama and arguments between Mama and Daddy. Lying in bed and hearing the words homesick, too dangerous. A trip back to the pawnshop to return the gun that you never even got to see. Clothes packed into boxes and bags, loaded onto the cousins’ truck. Furniture and refrigerator and stove staying behind because they came with the furnished duplex. For your family, it was one more roll in the sand and then time to run away home.
The long drive at night and a day and a night again to Georgia, the sand turning from white to brown, then from brown to red clay. Trees you could climb without having to shinny, leaves that turned red and gold in the fall. Seasons changed. Your tan faded, your eyes opened for the first time in years, instead of being locked into a perpetual squint against the too-bright sun. You wore shoes and socks and a coat, and for Christmas, it snowed. You would always keep the memory of that billboard, of sand, the beach, and the sun, of the place where the whole world could see you naked and you still would not give a damn.