8-Minute Memoir: Day 5

The topic of Day 5 of Ann Dee Ellis’s 8-Minute Memoir is “Write about something little that means a lot.”

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Day 5: To infinity and Beyond

Somewhere where I can’t lay hands on it is a little thing my son made when he was six years old and in first grade. It is a drawing of Buzz Lightyear that he did for his kindergarten portfolio. The years have passed, and he is much older now, half a world away, living his own life, but that that age, Buzz was his favorite. Buss was everybody’s favorite at his age. Toy Story came out very late in 1995, and the DVD soon followed. By the time the next Fall rolled around, my son wanted Buzz Lightyear and Woody more than anything else in the world. He spent every day after school watching the DVD again and again and illustrating his favorite scenes and his favorite characters. Every day after school, he told me that Santa was going to bring him both Woody AND Buzz for Christmas.

News stations were already doing stories on how hot the toys were, even hotter than the infamous Cabbage Patch Kids had been. We tried steering him toward other things–maybe a bicycle, maybe a game, maybe a train set–but he wasn’t having it. I was in grad school at the time, and there was flexibility in my schedule, so each day when Toys-R-Us opened, I waited in line with other doting but panic-stricken parents for employees to open the door, and we began the mad dash to the back of the store where the tie-in merchandise was kept. In the Toy Story section, there were lots of Pigs, Mr. Potato Heads, Slinky Dogs, Little Bo Peeps, and LGMs. No Woody. No Buzz.

Till one day, when I cut through the bicycle rack, I arrived first to find three Woody dolls on the shelf–three solitary sheriffs surrounded by a vast emptiness of shelving. “Don’t take them all!” someone else screamed as she rushed up. I had no intention of denying another child a Christmas present, so I took my Woody and stepped out of her way. She snatched the remaining two.

The next couple of weeks were a blur of Christmas preparations and visits to the toy store, always coming up empty. The occasional single Woody appeared on the shelves, and the numbers of secondary toy story characters dwindled, all except Pig, who never seemed to go anywhere. Never once did a Buzz Lightyear appear, and a week before Christmas, it looked as if he wasn’t ever going to.

Thus began the kind parental words meant to soften the blow of the possibility of not receiving the one gift you wanted. The softening did not go well, as my son looked at me with pleading blue eyes that says, “Is Santa not going to bring me Buzz?”

So feeling the guilt that only an inadequate dad can feel, I drove back to the toy store and did something without feeling any moral quandary whatsoever: I found the guy in charge of the unloading the trucks, and I slipped him twenty bucks to set aside the next Buzz that came in. It wasn’t enough. I had to promise that a second twenty would be handed over when Buzz was handed over. He took my twenty, winked, and said to show up the next morning promptly at opening and may be I would get lucky.

So I did, and so I did, finding Unloading Guy not in the toy section but near the bicycles that I had several times hurtled. He slid open a door beneath the bike racks and pulled out the MacGuffin of all MaCGuffins. Buzz! It was banged up a little bit but still exactly what Santa was going to put in his bag for Christmas.

Over the years, Buzz and Woody followed the same track as their animation counterparts. They would much loved toys for years, but infinity can’t last forever. They were relegated to a bookshelf and eventually, to the high shelf in the bedroom closet to order to preserve them. But each time I looked at the high shelf, with the dust accumulating on them, I remembered that toys weren’t built to sit in closets.

Now Buzz and Woody work with me. Woody doesn’t have much to say anymore, and Buzz’s wings take some nudging to open, but they both stand tall among the bobble heads that adorn my desk, waiting for my son to return and maybe one day beyond, for his own children to ask Santa for a certain something for Christmas.

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People’s Song

Woody Guthrie has shown up again in my hospital room, and he’s swigging from a bottle of cheap whiskey, like the first time he wandered in here two nights ago. I recognized him right off because of the scrawny build, the wild hair, and the guitar slung on his back, labeled this machine kills fascists. At night, the nurses leave my door open a crack. They think I might give up the ghost if there ain’t some light, but I ain’t never been afraid of the dark. Hell, between the machines they got me hooked up to–one tube down my throat, another one to feed me by–it ain’t like I got a choice. I ain’t dead, but this ain’t exactly what I’d call living neither.

When Woody first showed up, it didn’t concern me he’d been dead almost thirty years. What bothered me was he didn’t offer some of his booze, which wasn’t like him at all. Not that I could drink any, but still, my mouth watered for some whiskey.

“Evening, unseen friend,” he said. “How are things out in radio land? How you like being cooped up in this government holding pen? I see from the look in your eye, you been anticipating me.”

My eyes must have known something I didn’t. A dead man I hadn’t talked to in almost fifty years wasn’t the visitor I’d expected. He put his finger to his lips and grinned at me, his foot up on the bed and that E-chord guitar ready. His shirt was untucked and raggedy, and he smelled like the road, all dusty and sweaty like in the days when we’d thumb rides back and forth to Tijuana where we worked for radio XELO.

“Don’t try to talk, Goldie,” he said. “I know you ain’t up to it. Just stop whatever you’re a doing and let this lone wolf do the howling for you.”

Those words sent me back to 1936, when the Okies were migrating to California, still trying to find heaven via US 66. I played fiddle and banjo in the camps some, mostly for my supper, though Okies didn’t have much of that, neither. I heard this one Okie named Woody Guthrie on the radio playing folk music and singing songs I liked, so me and my banjo hitched down to Tijuana to talk him into a try-out.

On meeting him, I told Woody he was too runty to pick up a guitar, much less play one like he did, but he said he’d give me a listen, anyway. His studio wasn’t much but cork board and egg crates and two stools with a microphone for Woody and his partner, Lefty Lou. Their first number was the theme song, then “The Rangers’ Command.” I tuned up, and when Woody busted a string, I helped finish the song off. Don’t know what made me happier, playing on live radio or standing next to Lefty Lou in her frilly dress that just did cover up her knees. Then Woody introduced me to the audience of “unseen friends” as “a string bean boy like Goldilocks. Keeps sneaking in the house when nobody’s looking.” Ain’t anybody played “Cripple Creek” so fast before nor since. My left hand scrambled up and down the strings so fast my right hand had trouble keeping time. I was about done, and done in, when Woody did a two-pat and hollered “one more time!” before he joined in and Lou followed along clapping. I couldn’t go another round so Woody stepped up, and I moved into the background.

“You still got that picture of us outside the station?” he said, and I could still smell the sweet liquor. A chord of light played against Woody’s face, and I saw the patches of stubble on his cheeks. He didn’t blink in the brightness, just took a nip from the bottle.

I winked. Yes, I still got it, and he smiled like it meant the world to him. But I didn’t have the picture. I had nothing left except this ragged body locked up in a room the size of a boxcar, a boxcar the bulls had nailed shut so the hoboes could get neither in nor out of.

“Didn’t I commence to teach you about singing before you hit the highway back North?”

No, I wanted to tell him. Four months living off beans and rice so you’d teach me to sing and write songs, and I still wasn’t anything more than a picker. You taught me then that balladeers like you couldn’t be trusted to keep your word.

Even before Guthrie, nothing with strings was safe from Goldie Peoples. After hitching back to California, I played regular in the camps and in joints where black folks taught me to play the blues. Then for years I hoboed across America and hooked up with everybody who was anybody on the folk and blues scene: Leadbelly, Blind Lemon, Woody, The Carters, Pete, Lee, and Brownie, just to name a few. White or black, I could fit right in on the circuit of rodeos, camp meetings, fairs, carnivals, rallies, street corners, and empty boxcars. Skin color didn’t matter to folks, long as you kept your trap shut and let the music do the talking.

Then just when I was making a name for myself, this These strokes hit me, and they passed me along from nursing home to nursing home. Without family to watch my interests, my guitar got stolen, then my dulcimer, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. If I’d settled down like Woody told me to so many times, I might have passed on some of my craft. If I’d had a daughter, maybe she’d been a good singer, or maybe even a picker like her old man.

“Ain’t nothing like good whiskey,” He took a swig and cinched the cap. “Too bad I ain’t got none.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down the throat. His pockets were stuffed full of scraps of paper, songs he’d written on anything he could find. They were coming out the tops of his boots, too, and his pants pockets. A bar of light from the door fell across his face as he kicked back in the chair beside me and made up songs about a paralyzed man needing to piss, which I thought was comical and was laughing inside when he scooted the chair closer.

“You want that bad to learn to sing?” He whispered like it was something sacred. “I tell you what, just listen to your child. Children got the truest hearts and that’s what makes the best music. Too bad you wasn’t around to hear the music come from your baby’s loving heart and squalling mouth. You might have learned something along the way.”

I wanted to say, I never had babies nor a wife, especially not three like you and a barrel full of younguns to sing and write songs to. He put aside the guitar and leaned so close I could feel his breathing. What’s he going to tell me? I thought, and closed my eyes.

But then the graveyard shift nurse came in. Woody saw her, waved bye, and walked out the open door. I wanted to cuss that girl like nobody’s business because Woody was gone and his secret had walked out with him.

The nurse sniffed the air. “Mr. Peoples, you been drinking?” She smiled and lifted my head to turn the pillow and pulled my ponytail out from under my back. “Sure wish my hair would grow like this.”

I didn’t get my nickname from the long hair, which I haven’t cut since I was discharged from the Army in ’45. Folks credit me with being the first hippie-folkie, but it ain’t an honor I’d like engraved on my headstone. Hell, who am I kidding? I’d be lucky if anybody noticed I was dead. Woody was the artist, not me. I could out-play him, no doubt, but his songs, simple as they were, out-did anything I ever tried. He had this sparkle in his eye, like the trickle of a stream coming off the Sierras, and it flowed into his singing–and his drinking. Hells bells, I could throw down more whiskey than a roughneck, and Woody still made a better drunk than me.

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I woke up the next morning , Woody’s words stuck in my mind like a true pure note. Maybe that’s what he had over me: the gift of making his words stick. That’s sure what happened after he got Huntington’s disease. Folks came from far and wide to sit with him, hoping some of his sparkle would rub off like bottled glitter.

And in late 1960 that’s just what I did when I hitched back east to New Jersey to see him. The Huntington’s had just about wasted him away by the time he got committed to Graystone Hospital, a place folks called “Gravestone.”  They didn’t know he was sick at first. Most thought he stayed drunk, but I knew better. Didn’t take much for me to see Woody alone at Graystone, just a few bucks to the attendants who took me to him.

It was dark inside his room. The morning was just shining through the bars in the window, more light than heat, and the shadows laid across Woody’s back as he slept sitting up in a wheelchair.

I squatted down in front of him. His hair had turned gray and grew even wilder, like a sheep needing sheared, and his skin hung loose on the bones. His head and arms jerked around, spasming, and he slobbered down his shirt. The wheelchair vibrated from him moving constantly. So this was where he’d ended up after running away from everybody and everything he loved to escape a disease that stayed hot on his trail, no matter how many freights he jumped, no matter how many jails he ended up in.

Steno books were piled beside his bed in the corner. Temptation got the best of me, so I sat down on the bed to read Woody’s words. Don’t know what I was looking for. Treasure, maybe, or a map to the places Woody never would take me. Before the disease overtook him, he had good handwriting. What was written on those steno books turned out to be as wild as his hair, and I almost couldn’t make out a word of it, the letters were so big and erratic. The disease took his songs, now his words.

For the better part of an hour, I fretted over his writing until some of the chicken scratch made sense. He wrote that he was a teacher, not a singer. I figured right then that Woody had lost it. I knew as well as I knew my name that he was a singer through and through. Him denying his gift made me sad that I’d come all that way and spent all those years waiting for him to keep his promise. Now, he didn’t have nothing left to give me.

I closed the books and left them in a pile. Though he wasn’t peaceful during the minute or two I stayed to watch him sleep, his breathing seemed strong enough to keep that little body going. I left him like I found him.

Over the years I’ve been cursed with my share of glitter seekers, ethno-folk professors and musicologists who ain’t never felt the chill of a boxcar in a Nebraska winter nor ate dust by the spoonful who wanted to record my picking. “The most versatile folk musician in history,” they called me. But that interest dried up when my body did. Lately, though, this one boy has been visiting. He looks like a Hopi and has a braid down his back. He just showed up out of the blue and asked the nurses if I was Goldie Peoples, the legendary folk artist. I would have told him, Son, ain’t nothing legendary about me except my drinking and singing voice, neither of which my mama would have approved of. Though he knew about my condition, he wanted to spend time with me and practice the banjo.

After months of me giving him winks when he’d mess up and lifting my eyebrows when he was going good, he got to be a damn fine picker. His fingers soon danced so fast I couldn’t see them, his picks were a blur of mother of pearl, and he sat for hours beside my bed and played. I wished then I had a sparkle in me like Woody that made folks come to learn his secrets, to take what he had to give and spread his words like dandelion seeds on the wind. The light that shined in the boy’s dark hair made me remember some other dark hair braided like that, hanging over a pretty brown shoulder. Then I could smell her in the air, the sweet aloe she combed into her hair to make it shine.

Chenoa, I called her, when we met in Yuma in ’61 when I was feeling lost. She taught me how to braid hair, and we made love in my sleeping bag out in the flatlands and her scent was like a song.  With her round face against my chest, she sung her peoples’ songs for me, and I knew I’d missed out on something. A breeze blew by, piling the sand on top of us. The night sky went on forever, and the stars were so far away, they looked like dust.

In the morning when I had to move on, she understood. On a lonely rode in the middle of nowhere, she waited beside me until a truck stopped for my thumb. Though I could see the sadness in her good-byes, we stood two feet apart without hugging nor kissing, just her eyes singing in a voice as soft and brown as doeskin.  When I got in the truck and turned around, she had already slipped back into the desert. The road went on for miles with nothing ahead and nothing behind but sand. I never looked back.

If the banjo boy had come by the morning after Woody spoke to me, I would have found some way to tell him, You don’t own the music. You just take care of as much of it as you can, for as long as you can. Then again, I was glad he didn’t visit. I sounded stupid and preachy, and I knew Woody would have done it better.

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The second night I waited for Woody until the nurse made her rounds, but he couldn’t be trusted to show on time. It was way in the night when he woke me up by humming in my ear. I could see him smiling in the light that leaked under the door. He wore his Army uniform, his cap turned upside down.

“How about singing one for me, Goldie?”

I scrunched up my eyebrows, meaning no deal.

“How bout I steps in then?”  The voice was like an echo in a deep well. I looked over and there he was, old Leadbelly himself, decked out in his pin-striped suit and polka-dot bow tie. “You ready to sing some blues, Goldilocks?”

Leadbelly bent a note and took me back to ’46 when me and Woody met up again. He had talked me into playing some rallies in New York, New York. I hadn’t been in town more than a couple hours when I got word some folkies were meeting in an apartment over at Washington Square. When Woody saw me come in, he lit into “John Henry,” and we didn’t quit until we’d stormed through three more railroad songs. Then Leadbelly’d said, “You white boys ready for some real singing?” and his twelve string flowed along with his deep voice, “I’m leavin’ in the morning, Mama, but I don’t know which way to go…” I hadn’t heard blues like that since I’d bummed around St. Louis before the war. While Leadbelly sang, Woody said to me, “Hear that hurting, that sorrow that makes him sing to keep his heart from breaking? Ain’t a grown man alive can teach another to sing like that.”

By then the Almanacs had come in, and we had a regular hootenanny right there. A meeting was just another word for party to Woody and at any party, he stole the show. He knew thousands of songs, both made up and learned, and he naturally changed them as the mood hit. I’d heard “This Land Is Your Land” be as peppy as a jumping bean and as lonesome as a poor white boy on Beale street. We all sat around drinking and singing, and I’d had enough whiskey to join in. Even drunk, I didn’t sound good, and they asked me none too politely to quit fooling around as I was throwing them off-key. I shut my mouth and sawed at the fiddle, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I settled into the background. Even though I could out-pick any man, woman, or over-sized child in the room, I knew I didn’t have what they did inside.

Then last night, before Leadbelly got half-way through “Irene,” the damn IV machine started beeping and when the nurse came in to fix it, Woody jig-danced around yipping, though she didn’t notice. She hung up a new bag and checked my drainage and left the door open a crack. Leadbelly nodded bye and followed her on out.

Woody hung around a minute more. “It’s about time I hit the road, too. Just wanted to say sorry about not teaching you to sing and write songs, Goldie. I just played around too much, I guess, or I figured on everybody being able to sing some, if their heart was in the right place.”

I caught Woody’s eye and winked as if to mean, It’s okay. No hard feelings.

I woke up the next morning with the banjo boy on my mind. He reminded me of the Shamans I’d met who had a knack for showing up in the right place at the right time. Around lunch hour he came in with his banjo. He said his hellos and started playing.

And this noon when I looked over at the boy with the long braid who’d come out of the blue, I thought maybe I’d missed something before. I blinked fast to make him pay attention and thought real hard in hopes he could hear me.

Sing to me, I wanted to scream so loud my voice would bounce around the room like an echo in a canyon.

“What’s wrong?”

He put down the banjo and leaned over me, his ear an inch from the tube running down my throat. But I couldn’t even rasp out my meaning. In his eyes, I saw my Chenoa with her butter skin and the lines that creased her smile.

Chenoa, I wanted to howl, Who is this boy?

The tears weren’t welcome, and I shut my eyes to hide them. The boy touched my face to hush me. He sung a song and though I didn’t recognize the words, the melody had a familiar ring. I knew that song, and I forgot the girl long enough to search the flatlands of my memory, then saw that he wasn’t singing a folk ballad: it was what Chenoa sang to me when she rocked me in her arms, and I drank her smell like a man dying of thirst.

Are you? My eyes begged an answer. What was your mama’s name?

But he couldn’t hear me. He stopped singing long enough to pick up the banjo. “I wrote this for you.” He blew through a train song, his fingers dancing on the strings, the picks about to catch fire. He bent his head, playing with his heart wrung out. I saw sweat on his lip and the soul of his mama in the music. Then I realized it didn’t matter if I could talk to this boy or not.

He hadn’t come here to learn from me, but to teach me something nobody else could, and now, inside, I was smiling a smile and singing a song to put Woody Guthrie to shame.

 

So now I wait. Wondering if Woody’s up for another visit, I stare at the ceiling, the cracks in the plaster, a map of these great United States and I count off the number of times I criss-crossed this land.

I’m up to forty-five and still going when I smell whiskey. Woody’s thinner tonight, and he’s got a slack-jawed look about him. There’s a sadness in his eyes, like in the days before he ran off to Topanga Canyon.

You all right? I want to ask him.

Ash drips to the floor from the cigarette perched on his lip. “Well now. We’re down to brass tacks. My tongue’s about wore out from talking. Words don’t mean a thing without a sound to go with them, so I’m dedicating this next number to my good friend.”

So he sings me a song that isn’t like the boy’s nor Chenoa’s nor like the well-dripping echo of Leadbelly, and it especially and finally isn’t Guthrie. I hear the desert wind sift the sand, as if it were blowing stars across a sky that goes on forever.

It is me. My song.

And then I pull my banjo out from under the bed and join in. Woody steps into the background and I play on, hitting the purest, cleanest notes any man ever made on any string.

“You know how to make a song good?” he says. “Tell the truth. Make the most twisted knotted-up feeling you ever had in your life as clear and concrete as it possibly can be. Make it ring true, Goldie, even if it ain’t got no words.”

Clear as a bell, I understand him. I take his bottle and pour whiskey down my throat. It burns like light. My door opens, and Blind Lemon picks up my song and Leadbelly follows him in, the twelve-string already humming.

And Burl and Cisco and Don and Lefty, they all squeeze in, with more folks crowding out in the hallway. Pretty soon, we have us a dyed-in-the-wool, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, yipping and hollering, howling-at-the-moon hootenanny to beat all others. They hand me a dulcimer and a harp and a half-dozen other machines and holler for me to play them all.

I promise I will, but first, because I don’t want nobody to bust up our little hoot, I walk over and shut the door.

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In the Beginning

In the beginning I loved you
Like a green bean
Sprouting from the seedcoat
of some leftover lima love.

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8-Minute Memoir: Day 4

Today’s 8-Minute Memoir writing prompt, via Ann Dee Ellis, is adventure, which immediately brought to mind my exchange trips to Japan. I went three different times, but the biggest adventure was the first trip in 2003, when we seemed to used every form of transportation known to humanity to get to and around Japan. Walking, running, trains, trams, subways, buses, bullet trains, airplanes– including one that took over an hour to load and unload because it was so big—taxis, bicycles, and even rickshaws.

1024px-osaka_station_north_gate_bldgDay 4: Umeda

The purpose of the trip was a short term exchange between my university and one in Osaka Japan. A coworker and I took a group of twenty or so students on a cultural excursion that also included visiting area schools. Americans have all sorts of ideas about Japanese education: we believe that every Japanese child wears a uniform to school’ that schools run 12 hours a day six days a week; that the Japanese are rigid and rigorous, with no tolerance for mistakes; and that Japanese children are taught math and science had a very young age by focusing on an oppressive curriculum that makes them better at numbers but weak in other curricula.

Most of those ideas turned out to be myths. We would soon learn that Japanese public schools are in session five days a week. They start at 8:30 AM and go until 3:30 PM. Children take an hour of math each day, but they also have an hour of music and an hour of swimming (until high school). They wear uniforms, yes, but everyone in Japan wears a uniform to designate their profession. You can tell at a glance what someone does for a living. Even the Yakuza (mafia), dress in a very specific way. Uniforms are part of the country’s culture, not something that makes the Japanese schools special. In fact, the Japanese schools look very much like American schools did post World War II. The structure Japanese public schools was influence by the American government that occupied Japan after the war. Children are not pushed harder in mathematics and science than other areas. They are simply taught well and more efficiently, using methods that engage them. In Japanese elementary schools, there is no more stress on mathematics then there is on swimming or music or even lunch, which they’re allowed to enjoy at a leisurely pace. At the high school level, when the school day is over, there are two hours of afterschool clubs–schools don’t have extracurricular sports or competition against other schools. And here’s the strangest things to our Americans teachers–there are no janitors. The children are responsible for cleaning up their own classrooms, as well as school grounds.

But back to the trip itself: My first impression of Japan when we landed in the Osaka airport was, man, that is a lot of concrete! The Kobe/Osaka area is a major shipping port, and the terrain is decorated with shipping containers, huge cranes that number in the thousands, and mile after mile of busy traffic. I’m not sure I saw a tree in the hour it took us to reach our hotel in Osaka. Not that Japan doesn’t have trees–the cities of Nora and are very beautiful, and the rural areas have forests. Osaka, though, is the most urban places I have ever visited, even more than New York.

Our hotel was a tiny place, the Hotel Green Plaza, near the Umeda district of Osaka. Little did we realize hotel that we had landed ourselves in the funkiest part of the city, near one of the biggest busiest train stations and several huge department stores, which put American department stores to shame. The area around Umeda is a warren of skyscapers, train tracks, and buildings built under the train tracks. Roads are labyrinths, more like paved trails, and the people are as unique as any groups in japan.

As we walked to our hotel, I was fascinated to see a Starbucks, two McDonald’s, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. After we had checked in, we decided to get dinner. Some of the students chose the familiar golden arches, and the rest of us went to a little place at the end of an alley On the way, I stopped at a vending machine and bought myself a can of beer. It was not a great beer, but it was cold, and it was my introduction to the vending machine culture of Japan.

Dinner was a pork cutlet with rice and brown curry sauce, ordered from a vending machine that spit out a ticket that we gave to the guy behind the counter. A waiter came around and poured green from a plastic pitcher, free like water in the US. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Family Mart, a convenience store like a 7-Eleven, where we bought corn bread (a piece of bread with corn kernels on the top), Diet Coke, and what I thought were gummy bears. Turned out, the gummies were made from squid, and the corn bread tasted like, yep, white bread with cold corn. The Diet Coke, though, tasted like home. There were a lot more adventures over the next two weeks, but I will remember that first night during the muggy monsoon season in Osaka Japan, walking at night, the noises of traffic and trains, eating brown curry with squid gummies, and drinking Diet Coke half a world away.

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8-Minute Memoir Day 3

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

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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.

 

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