10:30, Sunday morning, 21 February 1970
It was one of those little lost lamb spring days that sometimes wander into the dead of a Pacific Northwest winter. The sky was as clear as the devil’s conscience, and the temperature would reach well into the sixties by mid-afternoon. Almost everyone in Charleston would go out to grab a piece of that little lost lamb spring day; they knew it wouldn’t be long until another dreary storm blew in off Philo Bay.
Tess and I exited our basement apartment. Tess was careful to close the door softly because our mother had been out late the night before. It was Mom’s good fortune that Tess had been the last one out. Even at age eleven, I already made it a point not to show Mom unnecessary courtesy.
As we descended the crumbling stone steps that led to the alley Tess tapped my shoulder and asked if I thought the drunk passed out behind Elmo’s Adult Books was dead. I glimpsed him from our only window earlier and had already forgotten about him. Human messes were common in the alley, and behind Elmo’s in particular.
“No,” I said, “dead bums don’t fart.” We hadn’t heard anything like that, but the odor was unmistakable.
“Grr-rowse,” Tess giggled. She was eight, and invariably greeted the low and disgusting with a laugh, a smile, and the twisting of “gross” into a two-and-a-half syllable word.
“Whaddya ‘spect, roses?” The way I saw it, since the guy was completely out for the count it really didn’t matter if he was dead or alive. That, as we used to say, was his funeral. Still, it was always a good idea to give winos a wide berth, you never know when one might be playing possum.
“You put your money in your front pocket yet?” I asked after we had placed a bit of distance between ourselves and the man. We departed the alley where it met Burwell and directed our mile long walk east, toward downtown. I knew damned well that Tess hadn’t moved her loot from an immense black purse she rescued from the row of ash cans behind our building a few weeks back. That was always the way it went with Tess, you had to remind her fifteen times.
She stopped with a pout and a stomp. “‘You put your money in your pocket yet?’” she repeated, all rat-a-tat-tat and snotty-like. “Oh, all right, boss of me.” She sneered. “I’ll do it so you’ll shut up about it.”
“Good call. And toss that dumb thing in the trash while your at it,” I said, giving her purse a good flick with my index finger. “Everyone will think I’m taking a little retarded girl to the movies.”
“Oh, huh,” Tess said. This was a little catch-phrase of hers that meant everything from “You don’t say” to “Fuck off and die” (aka, “Foad”).
I thought I’d heard something close to foad in that particular “Oh, huh” Naturally, I considered correcting Tess’s attitude with a small display of violence, for that has been the right of older siblings since the invention of younger siblings. But I let it go. It was, after all, a fine little lost lamb of a morning that had wandered into February, and for the first time since October warmth glowed in the sunlight. All that, and…well…I guess I had called her a retard.
“Oh, all right,” I said. “But don’t ask me to hold it for you none.” And, yes, I had noticed that she’d taken only a few pennies out of her purse and put them in her front pocket, thus leaving the bulk of her fortune in that silly-ass thing. Under normal circumstances that would have been an insult to my intelligence, making a small display of violence mandatory. But, really, I seldom pounded on Tess. Whenever my quick temper threatened her with actual harm, all the ugliness in my heart would reflect in her innocent, trusting blue eyes. This would cause me to back down and feel bad about myself. It was a hell of a defense mechanism.
Like Rome, Charleston is a city of hills. Unless you are annoyingly athletic (which neither Tess nor I were–then or ever), riding your bike any distance whatsoever requires a great deal of getting off and pushing the damn thing uphill. We had bikes, as they were, but we usually rode them in the flat alley, against the grain of the bounding grades, which typically run west to east. Big Burwell Hill stood directly between us and downtown. The freaking thing sat there like a goddam Alp. Burwell Hill has always questioned the resolve of the humble pedestrian; after a considerable amount of whining on Tess’s part, we proved ourselves up to the challenge.
At the crest, a complete view of Charleston, the shipyard (which is the only reason why there is a Charleston) and the Puget Sound spread before us. I could still see the frigid winter blue in the sea, and farther out a tumble of whitecaps marked where Philo Bay communicated with the wilder, open Sound.
“How much you got?” Tess asked.
“‘Bout six dollars,” I said.
“I’ve got four-ninety-six.”
“You’d have more if you didn’t give a buck to the March of Dimes,” I said, referring to the large can that used to come round the classrooms two or three times during school year. “They call it the March of Dimes for a reason, Miss Moneybags.”
“I feel sorry for kids on crutches, Miss Stingy-pants.”
“Cripples get their crutches for free,” I said.
Sometimes God punishes you on the spot for the heinous shit you do or say. On those occasions no subtle, ironic payback lies ahead, nor will you be standing at the Pearly Gates and hear that heinous shit mentioned along with similar bon mots from a list that St. Peter reads to you–one which gives a detailed explanation on why you’ll be cooling your ass in Purgatory for a century or three, or however long necessary ‘til you are deemed holy enough for the Kingdom.
On the heels of my “crutches for free” comment, something that happened when I was about four bloomed in my head. Mom (who was carrying Tess, still in diapers, in her arms) and I were walking past the Presbyterian church during Christmastime. Ahead came a man using a rope to tow one of those wooden dollies movers use to transport furniture, and on the dolly sat a boy of maybe eight. The boy had heavy braces on both his legs and he sat upright and spread eagle on the dolly as though he were stuck that way. As we passed I saw that he had hooks for hands. He smiled at me and I screamed and screamed. I think I’d be screaming still if Mom hadn’t given me a sharp crack in face.
“What’s-a-matter-you?” Tess asked.
“Nuthin’,” I said. “C’mon, Woolies should be ‘bout ready to open.”
During the workweek, and to a lesser degree, Saturday, Burwell and downtown Charleston would be extremely active. Three of the ten shipyard gates lay evenly spaced apart from each other on Burwell, and the area was usually a mad tangle of cars, foot traffic, belligerent admonishments, blaring horns, and frustrated people futilely searching for parking. Come Sunday, however, downtown would fall asleep and become relatively deserted. The sound of the wind blowing in off Philo Bay would mix with the ringing of distant church bells, and something deep inside my heart would become sad and anxious and in deep need of consolation.
Back before even the smallest town became like a 24/7, meth-twitching, insane consciousness, nearly every business in Charleston (including Elmo’s) was closed on Sunday. As far as we knew only three businesses would be open that day: Woolworths (from 11-3); the Roxy Theatre (for the Sunday matinee only), and, I think, The Last Chance Tavern (whose patrons were almost exclusively young black men). Being girls of eight and eleven, and as white as Miss America’s smile, Tess and I had only two of the three open doors available to us. And on that day, which I now consider to be the last truly happy day in my life, we would visit both.
If I ever get sent to the electric chair, I know what I’d want my last meal to be: a Woolworth’s hamburger, fries and a fountain coke poured on shaved ice. Since the booths were occupied by church-goers (aka, “Christers”), we sat at the counter like proper little ladies and did our best not to eat like swine. Removing the wrapper off the straw at Woolworth’s used to be one of life’s greater small joys. There was a routine I followed and never deviated from: first I’d tear off the paper at one end, blow gently into the opening–as only to move the paper half-way down the candy-striped straw, mind you–and then I’d remove the wrapper and roll it up into a little ball. Looking back, I guess “life’s greater small joys” sounds contradictory; but I have no better phrase handy. I used to feel the same joy about October fog; the way a cat will settle in behind your knees and bathe herself as you lie in bed; checking books out from the library, and the smell of new shoes. The little losses add up to something big. I’m not one who would want to relive a big-ticket moment in my past; I’d settle for five minutes’ worth of seeing the world the way I used to see it.
We paid the check with dimes. Whenever I see a dime I often remember Tess thinking that a nickel ought to be worth more than a dime because it is the bigger of the two. It didn’t matter if she was eight or forty-eight, she never let go of that opinion. However, that sort of thinking never had sway at the Woolworth’s lunch counter; sixty cents apiece was the going rate for what we had and we each kicked in a nickel for a tip–which made us feel like sophisticated young women of the world, indeed.
The counter lady had spared us an appreciative wink and nod as we wiped up our spilled ketchup and salt and laid our napkins neatly on our plates. I wondered if she’d have done the same if she knew that we had acquired the bulk of our fortune from boosting flats of returnable soda and beer bottles from behind the A&P on Sixth Street then redeem them at the Thriftway on 11th, and vice-versa. The backsides of both stores communicated with our alley, and on the other side of the alley lay connected vacant lots heavily covered by blackberry brambles and scrub-foliage. We developed an intricate set of passages for our get-a-ways, which led from lot to lot, and even set booby traps for the few boxboys who had the stones to chase us. Once, when a yo-yo craze had swept our school, Tess and I had been bold enough to swipe the same flat of Hires Root Beer bottles three times in the same day as to raise the necessary yo-yo capital. We never got caught.
And there was the plain fact that we were prepubescent pornographers. Until old Elmo finally got wise, we’d bide our time in the bushes every Friday before school and wait for a greasy-looking fat guy to drop off bundles of magazines at Elmo’s back door. Nowadays, that might seem like madness, but I really don’t see how it was any different from the way Amazon delivers the goods today. Now, we didn’t steal everything that wasn’t nailed down, just a few. I used a pocket knife to cut the ties and Tess snaked out five or six issues of whatever jackrag lay inside and we’d beat it back undercover and stash the swag in one of any one of six hiding holes. Pictures of naked women were very much in demand at Charleston Elementary. Primo denero. Dangerous scam, however.
My classmates knew that I was pretty tough, and not just for a girl, either, this kept the gag pretty much a secret from the faculty. Yet one little fucker got busted and spilled his guts (I kept Tess out of the transactions, she was in advertising). I got detention twice for this, once for selling him a centerfold the second time for pounding the holy hell out of the little fucker during lunch, in front of everyone, as to send a message. Nowadays they would have probably sent SWAT after me and put me in Gitmo Bay. I don’t think I would have liked growing up in today’s world.
On our way out of Woolie’s Tess grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s get some pictures.”
“Make sure it’s okay first,” I said. “Movie starts in twenty minutes.”
The photobooth stood by the front entrance and was almost always OUT OF ORDER, but the sign was off it that day, and after Tess double-checked with one of the cashiers, it was indeed back in service. For a quarter you got a strip composed of four one-inch square pictures. I liked the idea, but only on up to twenty-five cents. Blowing half-a-buck on the machine seemed wasteful to me. So we went in together and made a series of dumb faces.
Tess extracted the strip and handed it to me. I said “cool,” gave it back to her, and it then disappeared in that scroungy purse of hers. I never thought about it again until last November, as I sifted through her stuff two days before her funeral. And there was something written on the back of the thing. Somehow, after nearly fifty years gone by, Tess held onto that damn film strip, even after the loss of everything else good in her life. I had it buried with her, it seemed to me that nothing I have ever touched in life ever belonged more to one person, better displayed the secret heart of one person than the words that lay behind the run of photos.
There wasn’t anything supremely poetic or earth shattering on the back of it. Just the day and date and “Me and Big Boss of Me Having Fun” written in her childish script on it. I came within a lick of scanning both sides of the strip, but something deep inside my mind, that same something which becomes melancholy at the intertwined sound of wind and church bells, told me not to do it.
Shirley Jackson says, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; katydids and larks are supposed, by some, to dream.” I dream yet I do not exist sanely. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I have the subject and object in my dreams the wrong way round. Maybe I am whom, and not the who who tells my story and weaves the tapestry of my dreams.
There once turned a world in which I loved Woolworth’s hamburgers. Mainly the bun, the way it had crisped on the grill and how just a little grease got on the smooth top, but never too much as to make it soggy. Now there turns a world in which the memory of such is steeped in a sadness so profound that every description I try to lay on it fails not just miserably but to the degree that it demeans the event.
Still, I wouldn’t trade my imperfect past for the most promising future. It was, and I love it dearly. Since I find my own expressions lacking, I leave you with the final words uttered by Marley’s Ghost: “Look to see me no more.”
Leila Allison lives in the menacing Pacific Northwest. She is a member of the Union of Pen-names and Imaginary Friends, and, as such, she works only between three and six in the morning, seven days a week, as stipulated in the contract between Leila and her “employer”–a dubious, shadow-like person who only comes out from under the bed to buy cigarettes and feed a parakeet named Roy.