Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever
My mom thinks she is making me independent, but I think she is making me strange.
She makes me go out to play. She tells me to make friends but also not to talk to strangers. I am always trying to figure out how to make friends and not talk to strangers at the same time.
She says not to talk to strangers because some people are really bad (like burglars), but she never says how to tell who is and who isn't. If I think about all my questions, I start to feel like I am falling off the planet. Then I have to close my eyes and lean on something, like a post or a wall. I mostly like to hang around my room and try on clothes and memorize my favorite books. I like to say all of "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" out loud in my closet, even though I am beginning to admit to myself I am too old for that story. My mom says it's not good for me to sit in the closet, and she doesn't want me to try on my clothes. "Go make friends," she says, and she blots her Raving Red lipstick onto a folded piece of toilet paper. Then, in a big swoop, she sprays some Chanel No.5 on her neck.
I put on sunglasses my grandmother bought me at the drug store. They have real glass in them. They're not like the baby ones that are plastic; they're kind of swank. I go into the front yard and out past the hedge, where I can see up and down our street. I make a move to the sidewalk and pass by some houses, looking in. I feel kind of like a burglar. If anyone sees me looking in, will they know I am looking for other kids? I take off the glasses and run back to my yard. I try this for a few minutes every day until I meet someone.
My first friend is named Mary Alicia de Jesus St. Vincent Perez. The day I meet her, she and her mom are just passing our house on their way home from the Piggly Wiggly Market.
"My mom told me to go out and make friends," I say. "That's why I'm standing out here on the sidewalk. Have you noticed me before? I was afraid people would think I was a burglar so I didn't go very far. Hey, I like your dress."
I am thinking about how to look harmless and not seem like a stranger when I realize they barely speak English.
They came to Miami from Cuba when Mary wasn't even one year old. Now she is five like me, but she's much fancier. Not just because she has the most names, but she always wears a beautiful dress with a full petticoat her mother irons each day and a sparkly comb in her most perfect jet-black hair. I think she will grow up to marry a bullfighter. Mary and her mother go to church a lot, and Mary is baptized. She told me being baptized is being blessed, that nothing bad can happen to you, and you can get into heaven. Mary says you can't go to heaven at all unless you are baptized. I wonder why she thinks about going to heaven so much when we are only five. I want to live to be a grown up first so I can enjoy my life like in the ads. So I can drive a car and smoke and have coffee with friends. So I can be simply a female female and enjoy being a girl.
I asked my mom if I am baptized, but she said no. She says Mary and her mom are religious, and that's why they're baptized.
"Are you baptized, Mom?"
"Yes," she says, "but we're not religious, so you don't need to be baptized, but we believe in God, and that's why we say our prayers."
She always says God will punish me if I am bad, and if he struck people dead for lying, I would be gone in a flash.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, you're sort of like my Dad. He shows up mostly for punishments, too.
When Mary and her Mom aren't at church, Mrs. St Vincent Perez is usually cooking. The first time I went to her house, we sat on the swings, and she brought out a plate of something called tostones. "Green bananas", she told me in English. The taste is a rocket ship to cloud nine. These are worth going out to make friends for. These will keep me coming back. I wonder if it's wrong to like them so much, to eat so many, if I should be polite even once and say, "No Thank You."
To pay them back, I push Mary so high on the swing her toes can touch heaven. Tostones and a Coke and Mary and her mother and Jesus, His mother, and Joseph. They tell me I am with them, but I feel alone. I am still the stranger.
Boys come by our yards every once in a while and look in. If their mothers told them to go make friends, they're not any better at it than I am. If you look at one, they usually run off. I actually might like one of them, the one who has this very good tricycle. It's blue with shiny flecks in the paint, and it has white plastic cowboy fringe hanging off of the handgrips. He is probably getting to be too old for it, but, just like me and those red and blue fish, it's his first love object. His name is Scotty.
On a day when Mary is at church with her mother, Scotty rides up. He stops and asks me if I want to ride on the back of that fancy trike. It's about seventeen hundred degrees, and so I am just hanging around in my sandbox with my dogs. The sandbox has an awning just for shading Wartz and Awl on these terrible days.
"You can just hold on to my shoulders, and we'll go around the block. I'll pedal real slow," he says.
He is wearing a Madras button-down collar shirt like my dad wears, and a pair of white swim trunks with blue stripedy pockets in the sides like Perry Como's at-home-by-the-pool-wear, and a pair of white flip-flops like my mom's, so I wouldn't say he's a total stranger, and I am supposed to be making friends, so I climb out of the sandbox and step right on the back of his trike. I am not sure what part of him I should hang on to, so I try a variety until it feels right. He doesn't resist me.
Part way around the block, there is a vacant lot. Scotty stops in front of it. It is completely overgrown with weeds almost as tall as us. I am thinking maybe he's going to kiss me when he says, "I wanna show you something," so I close my eyes and pucker up like in the movies. "Not that," he says," "THIS! LOOK!"
Then he pulls something from his pocket and hands it out to me.
"Matches" he says, like now do you get it?
"Yeah?" I say back.
"Wanna burn some weeds?" he asks me.
"I don't think we should," I say. Not just plain no, not definitely no, but I don't think we should (clearly a maybe, and a sure, you go ahead). So he takes out a match, and he does some striking, and it fizzles, and another try and some more failed tries, and finally one flick and it's out there. A flame and then a little smoke and then fire, and we are really staring at a blaze now, and this is big, how it travels so fast, eating and glowing and blackening and smoking, but we can't stop watching, and somewhere in the fascination of the scene we simultaneously wake up to the fact that the whole field will soon be engulfed and we did it and maybe someone saw us and maybe we'd better go and I am running and he is pedaling and we disappear toward our own separate houses.
I don't know what to do. I am sure we have left a field burning, and that there are houses on three sides of that field. I am scrambling to think what to do when I hear the fire engines. Oh, thank God, thank God, I think. Someone else is handling this. I grab at the bougainvillea and, jamming some in my hair, slam my butt down in the sandbox, cool as ever, pretending I never left. The dogs make a few circles in the sand and collapse next to me, tucking their noses under their tails, and it looks as though everything is back together. Am all pumping heart and pounding head as I smell the smoke, though.
Nonchalant as anything and gazing around at the toys in the sand, I decide on coffee and the other kind of smoke, a candy cigarette. My grandmother gets me those so I can be like her. I put my hand in my little aluminum coffee pot to feel around inside it. It has a top designed to make it look like a real percolator with a brown marble in the middle, which looks like coffee going up into the lid. After I make sure there is nothing creepy in the pot, and after the fire is surely out, I am going to put the lid on and pour myself a cup and have that candy cigarette by the swing set. I am going to lean on the pole ever so casually and relax like my grandmother does. Then I pull my hand back, but it won't come out of the pot. It's stuck in there. Every time I pull, I feel my skin stretching and starting to tear.
It looks as if God is punishing me already, I think, and at that exact moment, a couple of firemen come walking up the driveway, the truck pulling in behind them, blocking the street.
"Where's your Mommy?" one says.
"Is she home?" says the other.
"Well, yes," I say incredulously, as if he is implying my mother would leave me home alone. Even though she does, she tells me never to tell anyone. She says if someone knew I was home alone, they might come and rob us and kidnap me, or worse. Partly, I know I am just protecting her reputation.
"She's inside," I say just as cool as a Coke.
"Would you take us to her?"
"Uh, okee dokee." I say, trying again for that grown-up relaxation I see on teevee, my hand still stuck in the coffee pot. Where is the glow now, I'm wondering? The glow and comfort of tostones and my friend Mary starched white and pure and heavenly.
"What have you got there?"
"'s my coffee pot" I say.
"Oh, you have your own coffee pot?" he says accusingly, as if I am drinking hard liquor. I feel a little bit like sassing him. Before I can answer, he says, "Hello Ma'am, can we speak to you for a moment?" He says it just like he's Ben Cartwright. "Your little girl here's in some kind of trouble," he goes on.
Oh, God O god I am thinking now, what to do what to say. No Little Joe, Hoss, or Adam's going to come sweeping down the Ponderosa to save me. No fathersonholyghost. I hear a plane circling the inside of my mind for the right words to keep this from being real. I feel like the Coppertone girl with her panties down.
"I didn't do it," I blurt. Yeah, that sounds good.
"Go outside with the dogs" my mother says.
Oh, God O God. What if someone burned to death? What if we killed someone? My whole, young life thrown away because of the expectation of a kiss from an almost stranger. I am never going to make friends again.
While I am waiting for the verdict, the dogs smile at my mother through the back door and wag anxiously, trying to cut me a deal with their pleading eyes. No spankings. No spankings, Okay?
I try to work my hand out of the coffee pot as I contemplate my troubles. I am sweating like I'm in the fire myself. I am so afraid I will go to the children's jail. I hope it's the children's jail, even though I don't know for sure if there is a childrens' jail. I just pray it's not the grownups' jail. I am starting to cry a little, mostly because I know there is no such person as Perry Mason, and then I am sobbing with sadness and fear, and the big-chested firemen come out of the house with my mother, and I feel the dogs backing away, and the fireman says, "Your mother is going to drive you to the station."
"I didn't do it. I didn't do it!" I sob and scream, waving my coffee pot hand, beginning to lose my breath. Darkness is swirling around me in cloudy, smeary streaks. I feel like a fiend. There is no Kingdom of Heaven for me, no Ponderosa, no future. I think of a picture I saw of a man whose eyes were bugged clean out of his head. My mother said it was an actor named Peter Lorre, and I asked her what it was he was seeing with those big frightened eyes. Now I knew. It was a self like mine.
"Now," said Fireman Cartwright, "we've arrested the little boy."
Oh, God O God. Not Scotty? My mind is racing to get away from itself. I want to be Mary and her mother at church. This is what happens, I think, if you're not baptized, and you don't wear little white dresses like a real girl. This is what happens if you wear pedal pushers and lie in the sandbox with your dogs, daydreaming about being a grownup and driving out on the open highway and stopping only for tostones and a Coke and then continuing on, smoking, all the way to Cuba.
The two firemen get in the truck and pull out of the driveway. My mother invites me into the car.
"Can Wartz and Awl come?" I plead.
I saw a movie about jail. They called it "Hard Time in the Joint."
"What did you do? Stop crying right now, and tell me what you did, or I'm driving you to the station. Right now."
"Why aren't I baptized?" I whimper. She puts the car key in the ignition. Starts it up. "It was Scotty's idea." I am squealing now. I'm gonna spill the beans. I tell her everything. My head is down. I am twisting the little coffee pot round and round, but it's no use. I have blood coming out of there now. Little drops of it I keep trying to hide.
"God punishes you when you're bad," my mom says, eyeballing the coffee pot. Tears are dropping out onto my lap, but silently now. God doesn't have to punish me. My mother will, and I'll punish myself.
"The firemen said that if you told the truth, you didn't have to go in. You got lucky this time. You could have killed somebody. You can never see that kid Scott again."
I feel sleep coming down on me like a dark tube. My mother turns off the car, opens the door, gets out, closes the door, walks to the house, opens the door, closes the door.
When I wake up, it's dark, and at first I don't know where I am. As I start to remember, I hope for it to be a dream, like the ones I have when I'm sick, but when I try to scratch my head, I bonk it with the coffee pot. Oh yes, I remember. Fiend, not Friend.
My hand has become metal, like Captain Hook himself. My "perky the percolator" cuffed me. I give it a little twist. My hand is so swollen in there. I pull hard and I am so angry and off it comes with a big hunk of skin and I don't care because I don't get to have that skin because I could have killed somebody! I let myself out of the car and go out in the dark to the sandbox. I put the lid on the percolator, but it doesn't fit anymore. I have bent the opening to the pot all out of shape. I feel a bone-deep sadness, alone by the sandbox at night. Not even the dogs know about it. I'm too tired to lean up against the swing set and have a candy smoke, but I'll be a grownup and go and wash my hand and put myself to bed as if I'd never even been a child.
Wartz meets me at the screen door as I come in. His tail expresses the mood with a low wag. My mother watches me as I walk through the living room and then goes back to practicing her guitar, sipping her wine, singing "In the Pines."
When I lie down, I say a new prayer that comes to me: Dear God, I am sorry about what I did and didn't do today. Thank you for not striking me dead with lightning. I would like to fix that coffee pot. If I need to be baptized, please be sure to let me know. Amen. Then, Our father who art in heaven, like every night, except please not just for punishments. Then I hear Mr. Mike coming down the street with his ice cream truck tinkling at sonic levels. My mom says the reason he comes blaring around late at night is because he is blasted drunk and has no concept of time. I fall asleep wondering if he is a stranger or bad or not and knowing tonight I will not taste an Eskimo Pie.
A couple of days later, Scotty sneaks back to play with Mary and me and to tell us what had happened to him. As he does, he plays with a stick and pokes at the hedge. Hedges are a big deal around here, and everyone has to have them. Most are filled with hibiscus the size of our heads. Scotty just keeps poking around in there with his stick like it's a sword and he is stabbing at a flowery enemy. Swift as anything, though, a real enemy appears in the form of a swarm of bees bigger than a billboard. Again we all run in different directions, but Scotty is covered.
My house is closest. I go in screaming. My mother runs out looking for the boy. He is covered in stings, while I only have one or two. She lays him on the kitchen table and tries to peel off his clothes while pulling out the stingers. Then she kicks me out of the room, but I peek through the swinging door. Finally he is naked, his whole body swollen like a watermelon. God punishes you when you're bad around my mother.
"Scotty!" I holler through the door. "Are you baptized?"