Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Red cartoon birds of love

I am an excellent marketer. Not only can I get someone to eat bird poop, but I can make them beg to do so. It's nothing to be proud of. It's something you'd do if were secretly full of rage and mistrust but so cowed by your parents that you'd bring them an implement to hit you with. Something you'd do if you came from a family with generations of insanity genes.

As you know from reading my previous complaints, my parents birthed and raised me until the age of eight in a tropical paradise. Then they shipped our whole existence to the middle of Illinois in the middle of the winter in the middle of the school year, and I got a bad attitude. Who wouldn't?

I didn't even know I belonged to this big mean family of pranksters until we arrived. I knew my mama's side: my sweet porcelain grandma and my two giggly aunts, a couple of uncles and some cousins. But the other side: a bunch of loud uncles who looked just like my dad, a sour mean granny who made noodles wrong, and a gaggle of aunts who yelled or cried when they were the butt of some joke. Let's not even talk about the cousins.

This situation did not improve my mood.

The more tricks that were pulled on me, the meaner I got. My best trick was to do absolutely nothing. No matter if one of the loud uncles picked me up by my ears, or somebody decided that one of the boy cousins should kiss me for the movie camera, or my dad told me to take a real big drag off his cigarette if I thought I wanted to smoke. Nothing. Wet willie, wedgie, or Dutch rub. Nothing. These giant children did not understand my lack of reaction. But they also quickly learned to bother someone else, someone who screamed or cried or got mad to their satisfaction. So, along with the toenails and the artistic bent and the fair skin and the hatefulness and the red-brown hair and the insanity, I inherited from the big ugly family the most natural poker face in the world. I love that poker face, the most versatile tool I own.

These people liked things in an uproar. I did not. The granny, who looked like the George Washington from the dollar, kept alluding to some monsters at the top of the stairs and swearing that if we went up there Old Scratch would surely get us. Add to that the fact that I'd never before been in a house with radiated heat that singed your skin if you stepped too close to the stove. I thought I was in hell. And this hell made me what my mama called "the hatefullest child in the universe." Fuckin' A.

So... with all these cackling tormentors, who was I to torment? Because you know that's how it goes: Dad pisses Mama off, Mama slaps me in the head, and I look around for someone smaller and more innocent to take it out on. I was a kid. I'm not taking responsibility for the way I was then; someone else created that mess, which I still haven't cleaned up completely. Mostly I played my tricks on Sister, and if they were real good I took them on the road and used them at school.

This particular day, I was old enough to know better, and Sister was four years younger. Mama told us to get in the car and wait for her. She was slapping on some lipstick for a quick trip to the store. Something distracted Mama and she didn't come right out like she said she would. Even though the Valiant was always parked in the drive under the big oak, it was going to be hot in there. I opened the doors but didn't get in.

Sister always jumped into the driver's seat and pretended to drive. I stood outside the open door and encouraged her. She was not supposed to pretend to drive, and she had been smacked a million and two times for it, but she jerked the wheel left then right then left, made a little puttttpututt noise, enchanted by her fantasy.

I forgot all about tattling when I saw on the roof of the car what looked like a single layer of Cheerios as far as the arm could reach. Well, actually, I guess my thought would have been a single layer of Oatey Ohs, because we always bought the cheap cereal. Cheap everything. That's another story.

So for some reason I'll never understand, this magical day the birds pooped little bitty rings that had hardened into something that closely resembled breakfast.

I reached out my hand and scooped up a whole fist of bird-shit Oatey Ohs. Yes, I did. I wasn't sure yet what I was going to do with them. I got in the back seat and thought for a moment. I was almost sure my first idea would not work, but I went with it for lack of anything else.

I quietly smacked my lips.

We were always hungry for snacks, which we never had, and with her dog-ears Sister immediately noticed. Someone's eating something.

I kept my fist closed and pinched two fingers down in it, tipped my head back and pretended to drop in something delicious. I fake chewed. Fake swallowed. Smacked my lips a little more.

"WHAT ARE YOU EATING?" said Sister.

"Nothing," said me.

I made her ask a few more times before I stuck out my fist and opened it. "These," I said.

She snatched a few birdy-ohs and tossed them in her mouth. She chewed three times before her nostrils flared and her mouth slowly opened. She stuck out her tongue and let the poop drop off of it into the floorboard.

"You're gonna get smacked for that," I told her.

She pawed at her mouth and then squeezed her neck like she wanted to strangle herself.

"What was that?" she asked.

"Bird crap," I answered. Dad said crap, so I did too--out of Mama's hearing.


"Oh, yeah," I told her.

Sister began to cry. That face is still frozen on a slide in my brain. Her skin flushed and little tears popped out of the corners of her eyes. I think it was the first time I stepped into someone else's shoes, and what I felt was not so good. Sister put out her hands, her face a mask of tragedy, and our souls clinked together like champagne glasses. Little red cartoon birds rushed out of my heart in a noisy cloud and made me see: This is the person I love. Not Mama. Not Dad. Sister. She's such a pitiful thing, but she's all I have. You know how a moment like that can lodge itself inside you.

Mama got in the car, and Sister jumped up on the hump and hung over the front seat. "Nanny made me eat bird poop," she tattled.

Mama smacked her right across the head and said, "Don't you know better than to eat anything your sister tells you to?"

My parents were a couple of screwed up kids. I don't think they meant any harm.

P.S. Tomorrow I'll tell you about a surreal couple of days we spent with my aunt while Mama went to the hospital to have a baby.

And let me tell you briefly about Rose. She was my writer's block angel these past months when life punched me in the guts and I was trying to get my breath back. I couldn't write. I couldn't even keep up with other blogs. Every once in a while, out of the blue, I'd get a little message from Rose reminding me ... of me, and letting me know that someone likes to hear what I have to say and laughs at the way I say it. It was a kindness I didn't expect. Thank you.

Have you ever had your own personal angel? If you have, pass it on because it can make a real difference to someone.


leslie (crook) said...

The comment gremlins are at it again... I KNOW I left you a comment last night, but it's not here now. ;-(

You WERE a mean little thing, but I'm glad you and Sister made up. You two seem so close, it's wonderful.

Sweet Pea said...

Great story and very enlightening regarding the dynamics of the big sis/little sis relationship.

My big sister didn't have a good excuse for playing tricks on me and making me cry. She wasn't passing on any cruelty, she just had a mean streak. Her most memorable trick was the "close your eyes and open your mouth" trick which I fell for twice! Sand was her bird poop. I think she thought it was even funnier the second time I fell for it. I don't blame her--it was pretty funny--just not to me. I've had my guard up ever since. Somewhere along the way I think she did have that moment when she saw how her "tricks" were really hurting me and it changed her. I went from being her target to being her closest friend. She stopped being the arrow and became the shield for which I am ever grateful.

Mariam Kobras said...

How I love this story.
Aside from being told so well ( and I LOVE the "gaggle of aunts"!!!!), it shows so endearingly the loneliness and rebellion of your tough little heart.
The choice to return to writing is the right one, and me, I'm looking forward to reading more of your stories.
And you are NOT insane. Maybe a little quirky, and you wear striped stockings, but so did Pippi Langstrumpf.

Sue said...

OMG I Love your stories..I am going to send my friend Jo over to read them...she will love your writings as much a s I do :-)

DeadpanAlley said...

When your book comes out, please let us know, we'd like at least a half dozen copies.

That is all...