It is the vegetation-engorged green of June, just an hours before the cicadas start up their grating cries. The sun tilts across a girl’s shoulders, making her shadow and the shadows of shrubs around her grow long and wide. She imagines that she has grown taller, into a monstrous shape. The squishiness of the mud beneath her, the heady fragrance of decay in the air, the steady and pleasant hum of the insects — all these things she will remember and miss when she is a woman, but for now she just feels and soaks it into memory.
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She girl is too skinny, scab-legged and wearing cut-off jean shorts with a Goofy Dog tank top. On her bullet proof feet she has muddy red tennis shoes with one big toe peaking out. Her thick dark hair curls wildly in the damp air as her skin, shiny with sweat under a sky that is eternally blue and sunny, turns darker and darker as fast as bread in a toaster.
The girl is standing very still because she is afraid that were she to move so much as a muscle, the vegetation beneath her would creak and give her away. She sees a boy hiding too not ten feet away from her. They eye each other so she makes as if she was zipping up her mouth with her fingers and then tossing the key away with a slight flick of the wrist. Theirs is a temporary alliance forged from the intimacy of hide and seek warfare, southern white trash style.
She is carefully planning her escape strategy rather than attack plan, revealing, at eight years old, a deeply practical side. How does she make it across baseball field and to the wall of honeysuckles where her bike is hidden? Once on her bike she knows there is no boy in her neighborhood that can catch her. She is the Queen of Southside Neighborhood on the bike, undefeated reigning speed champion. Yes, the trick is the field of grass ahead of her where she could be caught or pelleted with prickly Sweet Gum seed balls; it is in that space where she has to use her fortitude, her burgeoning superhero powers, to prove that despite who she is she can beat them.
She knew she had a bigger task once she reached safety — having her mama know she was out playing war with the boys again. They were pleasant enough boys, a little wild, as boys were expected to be. But her mother thought she was too unbridled to mix with them. “Mi hita”, her mama would say “Boys only want one thing — why can’t you stay inside? Like your sister?” The girl didn’t know what that one thing was, but she knew it wasn’t her. The boys only liked girls Shannon or Sarah; those flowerlike girls in her class with straight thin blond hair, blue eyes and small pretty noses and friendly girlish inflections; whereas she felt more like a weed that had sprung up hearty but uninvited in their manicured garden. The Shannons and the Sarahs reminded her of pale porcelain figures, something lovely for your mantel piece rather than for running around in the swamps and muds playing Sudden Death Hide & Seek. She was built for the latter, she knew, because of her stocky gymnast body, like a compact pit bull. Her hair was wild and thick, and her eyes were dark and tauting, with a dangerous-looking intelligence. She is the snuff colored kicking pony to the Shannon’s of the world ethereal tall white gentle mares.
But none of that mattered now as the adrenaline flooded her system. With a rush of fear and determination she takes off running, leaping into the void in front of her. She feels the energizing warmth of the sun on her back, she hears the rebel yell of boys coming out of their hiding places and feels the soft pelts of seed balls thrown at her from too far a distance. She runs sufficiently frantically all the way to the opposite edge of the field into green upon green upon green. When she grabs her bike she feels this crazy rush of pride and power, her little heart beating as she jumps on her bike. Pumping her legs like pistons the sidewalks beneath the pedals turn a blurry gray and give off shiny sparkles, as if broken glassy rhinestones have been ground with the cement.
She bikes furiously past all the old houses, solidly working-class, in the neighborhood with lawns spray-painted with herbicidal chemicals in the summer. She only catches glimpses of the big, dull-eyed men, with sloped shoulders and sagging bellies hanging over their muscle cars, tinkering with the unknown things under the hoods.
Once home she jumps off the bike without braking. She prances and dances in place. She pretends she is an Olympic medal winner breathlessly thanking her parents, her fans, and that special coach that believed in her when no one else would. The crowd around her(actually a squirrel in an overhead tree scolding her, barking Sammy her faithful dog and a couple of stray cats) cheer riotously as they pump their fists and wave their USA flags. USA! USA! She won the Gold!! These are those tiny fun make believe moments that she make her not want to trade her life for any other, longer or the better life of the Shannons.
Her mom is standing at the doorway. Mama is a tiny but fiery woman with straight indian black hair and Cleopatra eyes. She looks just out of place within these squadrons of small-town Christian moms as her daughter, but mama tries hard to fit in. Yet instead of being judged by the symmetry of her vacuum cleaner tract marks, the quality of her drapes, and all those things she could control, mama is be judged by how many generations her family has lived in this town and the Church they don’t go to (First Baptist being the pinnacle of a goodness and guarantee into Heaven). They’ve only been in the country nine years, and daddy is an atheist. “Aye chata fea!” Mama exclaims (nicknames, especially insulting ones, are a way of showing affection without showing affection in her family) when she see’s her girl’s muddy appearance. Mama sends her to her room to think about the errors she committed hoping to bore her daughter into submission.
The girl passes her sister sitting primly on the couch reading the encyclopedia, the exact same spot she’s been all day. Her sister’s curly hair is tied tightly into a neat thick braid. An older sister is suppose to be the parent you could never have, the hip, cool mom, but instead she got a goody two shoes for a older sister. They stick their tongues out at each other. The girl makes sure she toots right when she passes her Majesty Of Good.
The girl’s room is full of her child’s breath, flannel, pillows and dreams. She curls up on the bed and resists an atavistic urge to suck her thumb. Sammy sticks his cold nose under her palm. She yearns to burn something down, blow something up, she often feels this way. Then entropy takes over, and she is suddenly too tired even to get undressed. She sleeps until the next day, and goes on to play outside each day, until she is old enough to leave.
Memphis Saltos was born and raised in rural southeastern Louisiana by unconventional immigrant parents. Her father was a genius atheist, her mother suffered from NPD and her neighbors were all Southern Baptists. Life was odd. She now lives in Berkeley, CA and life is still odd. Only now she writes on a computer instead of bathroom walls. You can read more about her at www.humminggirl.com
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