Authors: Jill McCorkle
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
This book is dedicated to Max Steele, Lee Smith and Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
a small exchange for their instruction, encouragement and irreplaceable friendship.
There is a picture of my mother that she keeps tucked away in her old scrapbook, yellowed pages pressing crumbled corsages, letters, gum wrappers. I used to sneak the book down often just to find that picture, to study every detail. Even now, I can see it: She is seventeen years old and it is her senior promâshe is wearing a strapless gown with a tulle ballerina length skirt. Behind her you can see stars, glittered cardboardâthe theme is “Stardust.” For years it bothered me that the man beside her was not my father. It seemed wrong that my brothers and I were not there, wrong that there was no knowledge of me behind those familiar eyes, wrong that there was no bump of a wedding ring under those white gloves, no thought that those gloved hands would one day change my diapers. It made me feel strange, very lonely, and I would cram that picture back between the gardenia crumbs, sneak it back to its place on the shelf in her closet, knowing all the time that I would have to look again.
And I did look againâagain and again. I would spend hours sitting on the floor of that closet, my father's clothes all bunched together on the right, faint traces of tobaccoâmy mother's on the left, neatly spaced, hangers going in one direction like a parade of flat limbless
people. Sometimes I would try on the clothes so that they wouldn't look so empty but usually I just sat with the picture box and spread its contents all over the floor. Then I would go through one by one and try to put them in chronological order so that I could see myself, my history, the parts that I could not remember. One day, I labeled all of those parts. I wrote B. J. (before Jo) in black magic marker; I drew a goatee and horns on the man at the senior prom; I put a neat circle around myself every time that I appeared. It seemed very important that all of that be done, even after my mother discovered my documentation and switched the hell out of me. Even now, those parts seem important. I call them pastshots.
There was my parents' wedding dayâspecks of rice frozen in midair; Great Aunt Lucille with a lace hankie up to her nose; my mother's mother with her hand lifted in a slight wave while my parents are caught in a blurred run towards the old black and white Ford on the street. I don't remember that car because it was B. J. My grandmother died B. J. Much of my father's hair thinned B. J. and yet, I know that it happenedâI know that there was a moment when it was all real, even though what I remember is an old blue Rambler, going to the cemetery on Sunday afternoons to see my grandmother, Lucille looking much older and blowing her reddish snout into a jumbo Kleenex.
My favorite picture of my brother Bobby is one that was taken when he was two. He is sitting on Santa's lap
in front of the old Wood's dime store and he is crying because he is scared. That picture was taken B. J. but it doesn't seem as foreign as the others. Maybe it's because it's Bobby and because I can remember him making that same face, crying that same way one other time.
This is Mama standing beside the old blue Rambler. When I was three and a half, I spray painted Jo Jo on the side of that car. Mama is fat and she looks upset just as she did when I painted the car. Bobby, who was three, is standing beside Mama and he is filthy dirty, mud all over his little overalls and face. They had called him away from his puddle in the sideyard where he had been making mud pies just to make the picture which Mama later labeled “just before Jo” which is what inspired my own system of documentation and the neat black circle around Mama's belly. I am told that Bobby could not wait for me to come out because he had always wanted a pet. All he had at that time was a fake snake named Buzzy that he kept in a jar of water by his bed. He wanted to name me Huzzy so that Buzzy and I would be related and for years it was tradition that this story be told on my birthday so that everyone could get a good laugh. Several years ago, that changed, and now they just make a toast to me, a year older, many happy returns.
This is my birth day. It is my debut but I don't have a long white gown, long stemmed roses, or an escort. All I have is myself and my Mama and the little plastic bracelet
that assigned my name and sex, Spencer/Femaleâa picture of the beginning of my beginning, though there is not the slightest resemblance. This picture disturbed me, not just because I look so different, but because of what Great Aunt Lucille (who was not so great) told me on the day of her husband's funeral, that my mother threw up the entire nine months that she carried me, that she was so miserable, the most pitiful sight, that I almost killed my Mama coming out backwards the way that I did. “You ripped her wide open,” Lucille said and blew her nose in a jumbo Kleenex. My mother said that Lucille shouldn't have told me that, that I was worth it all; but it was true. Now, when I think of that picture, I am reminded that I made my Mama vomit nonstop for three-fourths of a year, that my whole life started in reverse, that Lucille was a bitch and is now a dead bitch. However, the picture did have one very useful function. It was the bit of proof that I clung to all of those times that Bobby told me that he was the real child and that I had been left in the trash pile by some black people who did not want me.
Here, I am eating something that is green and comes in a little jar. Mama zeroes in on my mouth while making train noises, choo choo chugga chugga. Bobby is right there beside my high chair and he is holding long and rubbery Buzzy. “Buzzy loves you, Jo Jo. Buzzy wants to kiss you, Jo Jo. Buzzy wants a bite of your lunch, Jo Jo,” and after rubbing Buzzy all over me, he dove Buzzy's
nasty rubber head into the nasty green cuisine and it all froze: Buzzy's head always covered in green slop, Mama's spoon suspended on the invisible railroad track, her lips pushed forward in a “choo” while I sit helplessly, unable to control what is about to happen, unable to control the story that goes with this picture. I have felt that way many times.
It is my first birthday, documented by the one candle and the little “1” above the circle around my face. I am allowed to put my hands inside of the cake and mush up the good chocolate insides, squish them between my fingers, rub it on my faceâso good for little Jo Jo for at this time, guilt was not associated with pleasure. Bobby is wrapping his gift to me (a girl snake named Huzzy) around my tiny wrist like an Egyptian bracelet. I am told that I never minded Bobby's attention; he was the dark haired creature who stood at the end of my crib when my diapers were being changed and made me laugh. I have always liked Bobby's attention and sometimes, still, he can make me laugh.
Bobby and I are sitting on the front steps with our Easter baskets on our laps. He is holding me so that I don't tumble down the steps in the few seconds that it takes Daddy to take our picture. Bobby had taken all of my red and purple eggs and replaced them with his white and black ones. He told me that he did that because he
wanted me to have the “good” eggs. I loved him for that and yet, I hated to take all of the good ones because all I did was roll them around in my mouth and then leave them places where they would not be found for a long long time. I was feeling quite pleased when Mama yelled at Bobby for giving me all of the “bad” colors. I cried during the picture but then I forgave Bobby when he gave me all of the pretty colored tinfoil off of all of his chocolate eggs after he had eaten them. He also gave me all of the pretty colored tinfoil off of all my chocolate eggs after he had eaten them. My faith was restored and it made me smile such a sweet smile that Daddy had to take another picture. “A happy hoppy picture,” he said, so I sat very still like a good Jo Jo when all the time I was confused by the fact that I did not know “good” from “bad,” yet was content to roll both “good” and “bad” eggs in my mouth and deposit them in places where they would not be found for a long long timeâinfantile artifacts to remind me of myself on that particular day.
We are all in the front yard of the house on the corner of Walnut and 16th streets, Blue Springs, North Carolina. The house is red brick and the shutters were white then. There is a flat football on the roof of the house, thrown there by Bobby just two weeks before. He did not get a whipping because he had chicken pox. He is standing beside Mama and she looks upset. I am in Daddy's lap, a perfect circle around my face, and we are off to one side
on the steps. The top of Daddy's head is cut off by Mr. Monroe, the fat man from next door, who took the picture. I am crying because I have just been switched for spray painting Jo Jo on the side of the old blue Rambler. At three and a half, I am told that I looked just like Lucille because of my dark auburn hair and wide green eyes. (I see no resemblance.) Already, I was starlet material because I had learned that if you will cry the first time that the switch hits (unlike Bobby) that it will not last as long and if you go further to pout and moan, then you can, indeed, hurt them worse than they hurt you. I also learned something else; you can get away with bad things if you are sick. This is a thought that has crossed my mind several times over the years.
It is my fourth birthday and I am sitting on my new red trike. Daddy tells me to hold up four fingers so I put them in front of my face (an age when obnoxious behavior is acceptable). Bobby is sticking his foot into my picture because a bee just stung it. He was trying very hard not to cry but he did anyway and it made me laugh to see him do that. I laughed and he pulled my hair until it almost came out but I did not fight back; I just sat there so that he would get in trouble (which he did). I had hurt him worse than he hurt me but I didn't enjoy it anymore when Mama switched him (in spite of the bee sting) and sent him inside. I made it up to him by letting him pull all of the roses off of my cake and then letting him blame me
when Mama saw it with nothing but candles and a little ballerina. Looking back, I realize that this is the only time that I actually remember seeing Bobby cry. The time that he busted his head on the pier at Moon Lake, he just turned very white, and when Nancy Carson dumped him, he locked himself in his room, but I didn't see him cry. He didn't even cry in part three of
Lassie Come Home
when Timmy is burying Lassie's toys at the foot of that hill. No, but there was one other time that I can really remember seeing Bobby cry only it is hard to remember why. He was all grown up and we were down at the lake and he cried just a little, a quiet cry, and I didn't laugh that time because somehow it was my faultâsomehow, I had made Bobby cry.
This is a B. J. that is out of line but I can't help thinking about it. It is a picture of my mother's mother, the same picture from the wedding except this time, she has been cut away from the group shot and blown up. Her dark hair is pulled back in a tight bun, and there is a slight smile on her face, her hand still raised in a wave. This is the only way that I know her and I have always felt slighted that she died before she saw me, that this is the only picture I can get of her. Every time that I have ever been to her grave, I see this face, beneath the dirt, inside that box, and it is a frightening thought because I know deep down that there is no trace of resemblance, that that slight smile that I have always wished had been smiled at me has long ago slipped into decay.
It is a very famous holiday but no one had taken the time to tell me about the historical figure that I came to admire so much. I am in Tiny Tots and I am afraid. This was my debut into social circles and although I did not know what I was feeling, I was feeling the need to be accepted and liked by the other children. I sat on a big red fire truck so as to call attention to myself in the picture but then a boy knocked me off and handed me the tambourine that he had been playing with. I did not know how to use it because I have never been musically inclined, so it was just as well when a girl that I did not know from Adam's housecat took it away from me. It was in this very scene that I was introduced into Survival of the Fittest but I did not feel very fit so I wandered onto the floor and started spinning with some other people to this song called “I'm spinning, spinning like a top,” but I got dizzy and had to sit down at one of those little tables. I was sitting across from a girl who wore glasses and she was doing something that Bobby had just taught me to do. She was crossing her eyes and I realized that for the first time I had found someone who shared an interest with me. “Hey, I can do that, too,” I told her and crossed mine. The teacher saw me and slapped my hand, pulled me away from the girl and told me that what I had done was not nice at all. I cried the rest of the day, because I felt guilty, because I was worried that my eyes were going to cross and get stuck as punishment for what I had done.
This is my Kindergarten class. The only difference between Kindergarten and Tiny Tots was that we had a different teacher and it was called Kindergarten instead of Tiny Tots. We did the same things such as dance to “I'm spinning, spinning like a top” and shake tambourines (which I had mastered). I had learned that Killing with Kindness is a good way to combat Survival of the Fittest (a method that I clung to for years); I could get anything that I wanted and maintain a sense of moral superiority. I was becoming fitter all the time. I also learned that the girl who had caused me to get into trouble way back in Tiny Tots had a name, Beatrice, and often, I would try to make up with her by telling her that I liked her dress even when I didn't (a tactful lie which should be distinguished from damn lies and bald-faced ones). Beatrice would have nothing to do with me when I gave these compliments. This made me feel worse and I would try even harder to make her forgive me. In the very second of this picture (we are all lined up in front of the jungle gym) I whispered to Beatrice that I liked her shoes (a tactful lie, they are hideous brown patent leather orthopedic looking shoes) and she would not even say thank you. I decided that if Beatrice did not want to be popular, that was her red wagon.
This picture documents a holiday, the day that would determine the weather for the next six weeks of 1963.
Everyone kept talking about the groundhog and I thought that I would like to meet this pig because we shared similar interests. Like the groundhog, I wanted very much to live in a nice dark hole where no one could see me and forecast the weather. I felt like everyone was watching me and spying on me and that is why, here, I am dressed as an old lady with a scarf on my head, Mama's high heels and a red bathrobe. Daddy thought that I was playing dress-up which is why he took the picture. I could not explain to him the very serious reasons that led me to adopt this costume. It was my disguise and it made me think wonderful poetic thoughts that I could not think at Kindergarten for fear that someone would hear me. Beatrice was a prime suspect because she was always so intent on whatever she was doing. When she shook the tambourine, she watched every single silver jingle (rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia) and when she finger-painted, she studied her hands very carefully. Beatrice had new glasses that made her eyes unstick and I was convinced that if she chose to see what I was thinking, that she could do it. I wanted to make friends with Beatrice so that she would not do this to me, but she still was not interested in being popular. I was popular at Kindergarten but when I dressed in my old lady suit, I had a lot in common with Beatrice because I had very intense thoughts. I can't remember when I outgrew the red bathrobe and replaced it with a blue one. I can't remember when Beatrice decided that she wanted to be popular, can't remember when her eyes lost all semblance of intensity, can't remember if the groundhog saw
his shadow in 1963, can't remember if he saw it this past year or not, but I can understand why he hides when he does see it.
I am at Lisa Helms' birthday party and we are all in the first grade. She is the one in the center with the thin bird face, sticking out her tongue. This is a symbol of the future, for at her next party, when we are all in the sixth grade, she will bring out an egg timer to see who can French kiss the longest. The boy on the far right, back row, with the black crew cut and simian features is Ralph Craig. He will win the future contest first with Lisa and then with Tricia McNair who will not move to Blue Springs until the third grade. (She will be a knockout with lots of sex appeal.) The girl standing beside me with long dark hair (she's the one doing horns over Lisa Helms) is my best friend, Cindy Adams. When we all leave the party, Lisa will give out the favors (which was usually the best part of a party). The boys will get plastic army tanks and the girls will get toilet water. I will pour mine into the commode that night only to discover that Lisa gave us rip-off favors; after one flush, it is gone.
Looking back on that event, I cringe at my ignorance. Beatrice never would have made such an error but then again, Beatrice didn't have the chance; she was not invited to that party. All of the other girls were coming to school with Lisa's toilet water behind their ears and for weeks, I was afraid that someone was going to ask me
why I wasn't wearing some of mine. My Daddy thought the whole situation was very funny; my mother offered to buy me a whole Tussy kit so that I could get some more toilet water and still, it bothered me. It seemed that Beatrice and I were the only girls in first grade who smelled only of soap, clothes detergent and whatever we had for breakfast.
Here we all are back in the front yard. It is Bobby's tenth birthday and we all have on hats with yellow streamers coming off the top. Bobby is standing beside his new red bike and he is holding up both hands for ten. I hold up seven fingers; Daddy doesn't have enough fingers to hold up so he just smiles, and Mama (with a look of discomfort on her face) holds up little Andrew who cannot even hold up his head and therefore, cannot keep his hat on. It keeps sliding forward and he looks like a little slobbering aardvark. Mr. Monroe (who still lives next door and is even fatter than before) takes the picture and catches little Andrew's spittle right before it hits Mama's blouse.
Looking back, I can remember seeing that slobber hit Mama's blouse and run down her left bosom. She squealed and again got a look of discomfort. I realize now that this look did not come solely from the slobbered upon blouse but just from little Andrew in general. You see, (unlike me) Andrew was not planned or on the up and up. It was like playing Bingo and not really concentrating; covering
all four corners and not even realizing; meekly yelling “bingo” as an echo to another bingoer and even though you have bingo, you lose. Mama was not prepared; when I am a Girl Scout some years in the future, I learn that that is something you must always be. Like me, Mama has changed her mind on a few occasions. In the future she claims that little Andrew (Andy) is a “blessing,” “the sunshine of her life.” And like Mama, I can honestly say that I, too (though it may be hard to believe), have screwed up once or twice.
This is the second grade class. I am circled on the front row where the short people stand. I look a little disturbed because Ralph Craig had just asked, “Why do cherry trees stink?” He did not even give anyone time to think of an answer before he said, “George Washington cut one.” That was the worst joke that I had ever heard and it upset me that I had actually heard a “bad” and nasty joke, and especially about the father of the country. In due time, however, the joke did not bother me, because I had heard far worse, because I had suddenly realized that George was a person and naturally he had cut one; he had cut several. What has bothered me from time to time is that cherry tree in general and that whole little story about “I cannot tell a lie, it was I.” I tend to think that the story itself is a lie. There is no proof, no picture of him standing there, guiltily, with his little hatchet. It is merely a way to provide insight into the father of our country.
I have heard another story about him that is shunned in the schoolroom. I have heard that he died of syphilis and pneumonia, the former which he got from someone other than Martha and the latter which he got on his way to see the carrier of the former. It seems to me that that is more historical than the cherry tree or the euphemistic approach that he caught his cold (and nothing more) while standing in that horrid little icy boat crossing the Delaware; yet, people just don't want to discover or accept a change in history, because it is easier to believe what everyone else believes. It is why there is religion, songs hit the charts, skirts rise and fall, the emperor made such an ass of himself strutting around in his underwear. It is why at one point in my life, those people close to me wore kid gloves, went out of their way to abnormally make everything seem so normal. No one had the guts to tell me that I was hanging by a thread, not for fear of my reaction as much as their own fear of an inconsistency, a change. It was far easier to say that I had had a “little upset,” was “going through a phase.” And so it goes, truth sacrificed for ease, which is why George will forever be the honest, truthful father of our country and why I was May Queen. It's all relevant. “I cannot tell a lie” is important and fucking out on Martha is not. “Little problems” are acceptable and so on.
It was a very important day but we still had to go to school. This is a picture that I drew myself. There is the
Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Marie (just like in the song). The good-looking man in the navy London Fog (he's on top of the Nina) is Chris and the woman on the other side of the ocean is the queen. Her little balloon of speech says, “Way to go, Chris!” and his says, “I have discovered America.” I have discovered that I was not artistically inclined. However, when I drew the picture, I thought that I had done an excellent representation. The teacher said so, too (a polite encouraging lie). Now, I see that the entire picture is rather flat when the whole point was to prove roundness. Chris' arms are much too long (for this is not a picture of evolution, another favorite topic) and he should probably have a beard after being on that ship so long. The man most definitely deserves some sexy feature, a cleft in his chin, narrowed tempting eyes, or even a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He deserves something but it is too late to rectify my past ignorance. Then, I spent much of my time wondering where the New World would be if Chris hadn't found it. Even now, sometimes, I think about all of that. Right out of the blue, I will think, “Columbus had balls” because he took a chance, because he did not base his beliefs on what other people thought, because he discovered the truth. I admire that because chances are hard to take, the truth is often difficult to face, because somewhere in the back of his mind, there must have been a slight doubt, a slight fear of finding himself clinging to the edge of the world, dropping into that pit of darkness that everyone else “knew” was there. And yet, he kept
going after the bit of proof that was necessary for his beliefs.
Cindy is having a Halloween party and I am the one at the back with the white sheet on. I knew that my costume was not original but I liked the way that it felt inside of the sheet; I felt like I was in bed and dreaming the party. Tricia McNair, the new girl in the third grade, was one of four black cats. She is the cute black cat lying down in front of the group with her long black tail held up for all to see. For a new person, she was not the least bit shy and had been immediately accepted. Beatrice was an old person (she is the black cat wearing glasses) and yet, she still was not fully accepted. I have always thought that there should be some logical theorem behind all of that, some correlation between new people and old people, but I have never figured it out. Ralph Craig, whom you will recognize by now, claimed to be a stoplight which is why he has a red dot painted on his forehead. Tricia McNair, right after the picture was made, won the prize for the best costume which really wasn't fair to the other three black cats, but I didn't voice my concern. It was much easier to stay in my sheet and not call attention to myself. Besides, being a ghost was so unoriginal that I felt by doing it, I had been original. I suppose that deep down, I felt that I deserved the prize, not the physical prize, for what did I care for a tacky little plastic jack-o'-lantern, but the title, the recognition that
went along with it. I consoled myself throughout the party first by congratulating Tricia McNair and then by telling myself that my turn would come. Besides, I was not yet ready to expose myself.
This picture is unexposed; it is very dark and it is grouped with all of the pictures from the Girl Scout campout. There are pictures of a bonfire, bags and bags of G.S. cookies, Cindy posed by a tree, Tricia swinging from a tree, Lisa with a Tootsie Roll Pop (oral fixation), but it is the dark one that I am concerned with. It could be another picture of the cookies or the bonfire, but since it is so dark and scary looking, I see another picture: I am in the tent and everyone else is asleep. I have a dire need to use the bathroom but I am afraid to walk down the path to the latrine; I should have gone earlier when the whole troup went to shine their flashlights down the latrine to look but I was engrossed in a winning way conversation with the scout leader who I hoped would give me my cooking badge even though that very day she had caught me burying my food in the woods. (To get the badge you had to eat what you cooked.) She was no April Fool and I had missed my chance to use the bathroom. There, in the dark, perched on a ratty little cot, I sit, my legs crossed tightly, humiliated, guilty for not having one badge on my sash, and suffering that excruciating pain of not being able to use the bathroom. I couldn't go out beside the tent because I was scared of frogs, snakes and whatever else might be out there, and
so through the darkness, I endured the hurt, the little pee shivers that made me jerk involuntarily, the hurt pride of not having one badge. It was my first real experience with the pains of loneliness, failure, darkness; the pains which come when one denies those very natural bodily functions. I have felt this way on various other occasions (even when I did not have to use the bathroom and was not sitting on a ratty little cot in a Girl Scout tent somewhere in the mountains). The likenesses are that there have been times when I really didn't know where in the hell I was except in a bed, under a tent, under a sheet, an exposed ghost; and again, I did not always finish what I started. This is why I feel that this one mysteriously dark, unexposed picture is very important to my life in general.
It is a holiday and I am celebrating the fact that this country owes its birth to Chris Columbus, by sitting in the bathroom. I am wearing my new old blue bathrobe and it is just the right length because it reaches the tops of my bobby socks. The bathrobe was comfortable and the pink scarf that I wore on my head seemed to hold all of my thoughts together. I felt like a poet and so I spent hours making lists of words that rhymed so that I would have them when I was ready to let myself go. At that particular time, it was easier to fool everyone, especially Daddy who always got a real kick out of the “dress-up” pictures. Had he known then what he came to know later, he probably never would have laughed and teased
me so, and thus would have robbed me of something very special. Teasing, when done properly, can be one of the finest indications of love, and it is quite sad when people decide that they will not ever do it again. Of course, I can't blame them. Who wants to feel responsible for hurting someone that they sincerely love?
In this picture, I am at VBS (Vacation Bible School) and I hate VBS because I have to see people that I feel I should not have to see over the summer. I am wearing a long purple dress and have just fished Baby Moses (a Chatty Cathy all wrapped up in a beach towel and put in a fruit basket) out of the bullrushes (a large azalea bush). Ralph Craig is Goliath which is why he has a rock taped to his forehead, his tongue out of his mouth and is lying flat on his back. Cindy is all wrapped up in long silky blue scarves because she is Mary and she is holding Baby Jesus (a Betsy Wetsy in swaddling clothes). Beatrice had wanted to be Jesus all grown up but the teacher would not let her. The teacher thought that it was acceptable for Betsy Wetsy to be Baby Jesus but that no one should try to play grown up Jesus. Beatrice got very angry and this is why she is all wrapped up in towels and lying on the ground right near my bullrushes. She had told the teacher that if she couldn't be Jesus, that she would be Lazarus and play dead just like Ralph Craig.
Even in this prominent position of the princess' maiden who discovered Baby Moses, I look somewhat perplexed. It is because Ralph Craig, before his death scene, came
up and whispered a word to me that I did not know, a word that you would say if you used the name Buck in the Banana Nanna Fo Fanna song. I did not know that it was an ugly word, though I had my suspicions, so I did not tell the teacher. Too, as ugly as I thought Ralph was, I liked to look at him sometimes. I changed my mind after I asked my mother to define the word. Ralph had said that that was what he was going to do to me. It made me afraid of him and yet, I still had to look at him even though I did not want to. It was like he had a power; even Beatrice was in his spell because later that same week when he commanded that she pull up her skirt or get a busted nose, she obliged. I realized that being popular did not mean that you had everything. Beatrice had an experience (self-exposure) which I would not have for a long long time. This one incident at VBS caused a lot of trouble because it made me afraid of boys and what they had. I think it also had a hell of a lot to do with the knot that I would get in the pit of my stomach at the very mention of VBS.
I am upset in this picture because I feel that I do not fit in. It is an odd thing because outwardly, I do fit in; I am one of the most popular girls in the fifth grade (along with Cindy, Lisa and Tricia McNair). It has been this way for some time, our four names always said together as if it is one name, TriciaLisaJoandCindy; I am third in line. We maintain this close friendship so that other people will not be forced to make decisions about whom they like
best (that choice comes much later). However, I also learned something very important from all of this, something political; there are divisions within groups that have already been divided from other groups and ideally should be whole. They are not; nothing is whole; even people, without realizing, split themselves up into little parts. This theory is one that came to mind much later, for then I was simply confused by the issue. You see, all three of my best friends had asked me in private to be their best friend and I had avoided answering for suspecting that they had asked each of the other two the same so that they would eventually be everyone's best friend and therefore have power. For times such as that, I had chosen for my answer, huh. Not “huh?” but “huh,” like “I see” or “Oh, yes,” and thus had not committed myself to any particular belief. This tactic works, for the person then assumes your answer to be whatever they would like for it to be and yet, there is no proof of exactly what the response meant. It is confusing, but then it was the easiest way to maintain my position. Noncommittal is easy or at least appears to be for it allows you to stay on the up and up with everyone. The problem, of course, is that you eventually have no opinion that you can think of except that which is thought by others and you never know if what they think is true or false. Monkey see, monkey do.
I was disturbed by other things as well. For instance, sometimes Tricia tried to hold my hand and I felt that I was much too old for that. There was a motive behind it. Was it a subtle suggestion to the others that we were best
friends? Was it a way to make Cindy and Lisa try harder to be her best friend? Or was it that strong human urge to expose and possess people who do not wish to be exposed or possessed? I was saving my hands for a future encounter with a male for that struck me as being normal and when done tastefully, with discretion, I thought could be a worthwhile event. Naturally, I did not reveal this thought for it was one of those very sound, very old, bathroom, bathrobe thoughts that I had to save just as I saved my hands.
Here, Cindy is holding hands with Tricia and it is strange to see because Cindy was my friend first and yet, she doesn't seem to be bothered by holding hands with a girl. Nor, was she bothered when Tricia turned and spoke directly in her face. It was my belief that people just shouldn't do that and yet, I was helpless to make them stop. A reprimand on such an issue would have committed me to an inescapable opinion that would set up a conflict between myself and the other three popular girls, three to one, and I had no desire to be on the outside. I had ideas that I needed that position, that if I hung in there, one day, my name would come first. Although I clearly had thoughts and opinions I did not reveal, I felt that I had to do one silly thing so I would not be rejected and could fit into the popular picture. I said, “Boolahbuster! Boolahbuster!” and then I squatted down and made a frog noise. This kept me in for a good two weeks without holding hands.
We were sailing along on the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Marie. This is little Andy sitting in the bathtub. He is surrounded by little plastic boats and stretched and tattered Huzzy whom he loves (in a way that I never did). On this very sacred day, Andy chose to play with himself (if you know what I mean) more than he played with the boats and I was quite distressed by this. Bobby saw a great deal of humor in the situation and Mama passed it off as a normal response. They did not see that little Ralph Craig glint in Andy's three-year-old eyes as I did. I thought that Mama should possibly beat him but she didn't and I had to console myself with the thought that after me, there was very little sense left for Andy to receive, sort of like, “where were you when they passed out the brains?” Of course, now I realize that that is not how it works and that Andy is quite intelligent in his little assy way. He was merely into blatant exposure while his sister was discreet, tactful, mysterious and sneaky.
I am getting ready to go to Moon Lake with Tricia. She is wearing a hot pink two piece that shows her navel, an “inny.” The rest of us are wearing one pieces with skirts around the ass. Lisa has a look of discomfort on her thin bird face because she has (just three hours before) started her period for the first time. She is very early, but I learn in the future that Lisa is early in whatever
she does. She is the first person that I know of (in my age group) that has one and she will tell us all about it at the lake after we have all been swimming and she hasn't. Tricia will act like she knows all about it and Cindy will ask lots of questions. I will not say anything as I usually don't when I am perplexed. Lisa's descriptions will so link periods to tidal waves that I will spend the next two years of my life in constant fear even though my mother will try to soothe my prepubescent worries.
Here I am with Jeff Johnson. We are getting ready to ride our bikes up to the Quick Stop to get a can of boiled peanuts and two strawberry Icees. Bobby is the smart ass that takes the picture as a subtle way to give me hell for having a boyfriend. I don't really but Bobby won't listen to good sense so I make a face and Jeff just smiles this real nice smile that Bobby will call a sissy smile when the pictures come back long after Jeff is gone.
After Bobby takes the picture and blows a kiss to me when Jeff isn't looking, we ride to the Quick Stop. This day, I don't have to pay half for the peanuts or buy my own Icee; Jeff buys as a going away present because it is his last day in Blue Springs. Looking back, I am glad that Bobby took the picture (even though at the time I hated him) because otherwise, I would not remember what Jeff looked like that summer. He was about the same size as me (short) except he was much thinner and he had pale skin (a freckled sunburned nose that prompted me to call him Rudolph most of the time), soft pale hair and eyes
like pale gray tissue paper. He was the kind of person who looks much better in black and white and thank goodness, that's what kind of film Mama always bought for Bobby because it was so rare for him to take a worthwhile picture. This picture is good though, and it makes me think of the few things that I knew about Jeff Johnson. He was two years older, from Maine, spending the summer with his aunt (Mrs. Monroe, wife of fat Mr. Monroe who took our pictures for us on holidays), and he was different from any boy that I had ever met. He didn't try to find out if you wore a bra or if you had ever kissed or if you had started your period, like Ralph Craig and a bunch of boys had done in the fifth grade when all the girls were given a book called
Growing Up and Liking It.
Beatrice had had to go home that day and if I had by then heard Lisa's description of periods, I probably would have gone home, too. No, Jeff Johnson was different; he liked to talk about fishing and bombs and poker and just the way that he talked made him sound so smart that on that last day, I confessed to him that I wrote poetry and thought that Christopher Columbus was the most wonderful person to ever live. That last day, he held my hand and it made me feel real strange but sort of good inside and he told me that he would send me a picture when he got his braces off. Just before we left that day, Jeff poured all the peanut juice out in front of the curb (our curb) and we watched it run through all the drink tabs and cigarette butts. I didn't look up but while we watched that juice, he put something cool on my finger and with my thumb, I could tell it was a ring of some
sort; actually it was a pop top, but I wore it for a long time after that. Finally after a long time, I put it in a box with lots of other junk and forgot about it. I never heard from Jeff and Mrs. Monroe never mentioned him; I figured for years that he was still wearing braces and that was why. Naturally that was dumb, and I see it now; I also see that being in love and being dumb are often simultaneous actions which my future years seem to portray more blatantly than a silver pop top and one black and white photograph of a skinny Yankee kid with braces that no one else in the neighborhood would have anything to do with, and a summer nurtured by boiled peanuts and strawberry Icees. I guess the most important thing to point out is that I had actually engaged in hand-holding, I had found someone, temporarily, with similar interests and I hadn't had to act a certain way. Even more important is remembering that after all of that, I never heard from him, not a single shitty little Yankee postcard, and I should have remembered that for future reference but unfortunately it was hidden from me by my subconscious who chose, instead, to remember that rubbery knee, sweaty palm, coronary palpitating feeling that I had experienced holding hands with Jeff Johnson, there in front of the Quick Stop in Blue Springs all summer when I was eleven.