The summer after I went to kindergarten and before I started first grade, Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in the middle of a hot sticky August. The day after the movie star died, our maid Ollie Mae, who always talked about God and the devil as if they lived down the road and could drop by unexpectedly, made me a hamburger for lunch lathered with so much mayonnaise that it was dripping out of the sides of the bun. It fell in puddles on my plate, and I stuck my fingers in it, swirling the creamy white mess like the finger paints I used in kindergarten. “Can I have some ketchup?” I asked. I thought that the mayo-painting needed color and contrast.
“What a mess you making! The devil gone a get you just like he gone a get that Miss Monroe for killing herself. You stop that now before she comes and takes you to hell with her.” She grabbed my wrists in her huge brown hands and wiped my fingers with a wet dishrag she picked up from the sink. “You make a mess ever day. You gotta learn some manners before you goes to real school. They puts kids with bad manners in jail. You don’t want to go to jail, do you?”
“Nuh uh. They don’t send kids to jail.”
“How you know that? You ever been to real school, not play school kiddy garden? I done got all the way to eighth grade before I quit real school to work.”
“My mama says you went to colored school. It don’t count.” I stuck out my tongue at Ollie Mae who firmly grabbed my hands again and looked me hard in the eye. She didn’t say anything, just glared at me with ignited intensity. Her grip was iron, and I couldn’t wiggle away from her. “It’s true! That’s what she said!”
“I gone to a negro school because people like yo mama don’t think I shoulda gone to a white school. They says we shouldn’t mix, and that that’s that. I can’t sees that they is wrong, but you shore ain’t gonna sit here and say ‘colored school’ like I didn’t get no learning. Now eat yo hamburger and stop playing with yo food.”
We only had one window air conditioner, and it cooled only two rooms, the kitchen and a bedroom that opened off of the kitchen. My parents converted the bedroom into a small den with knotty pine paneling, an old RCA TV (a giant wooden box with a safety glass front and a tiny olive-looking screen), two wire chairs, and a dark green vinyl love seat. Mama had completed two paint-by-number landscapes which hung on the wall beside the single window. The air conditioner cooled the den but the kitchen remained a little warm, recirculating the oily smoke from the stove.
“Can I finish this watching TV?”
“Yo mama wants you to sit at the table to eat. I give you a cookie after you eat all that hamburger.”
I went into the den with the cookie after I finished my lunch, and dug through the toy box which was inside the closet. The top of the box swung free on a piano hinge with no sort of locking mechanism to keep the heavy wood plank from slamming shut. My grandfather made it with no thought of children. My head held the lid open while I searched for the round box of Lincoln Logs and another round box of Tinker Toys. I took them out and dumped them in the middle of the floor.
“Oh no you ain’t. You ain’t gone a make a mess. You gets outside and play.” Ollie Mae stood in the doorway to the kitchen with her hands on her hips.
“It’s too hot outside.”
“It’s gone a be hotter in hell when that Miss Marilyn comes to get you. That’s what happens to bad childrens. They goes to hell. Now get outside like I done tole you.” She swept the pieces to the sets up with her giant arms and dumped them loose back in the toy box, letting the lid slam back down. “Get!” She herded me through the kitchen, through the back porch, and into the yard.
The screen door banged shut behind me. The air outside was hot and thick with humidity, and had a tarry summer smell of pine trees and creosote. Our backyard was not a place where any child could play easily. It had sandy, gritty soil and a steep slope that led down to a small creek just outside of the chain link fence. Our dog Rusty, a cross between a labrador and an ambitious dachshund, ran low and large. He busily filled the entire area with dog piles, dog mess bombs that laid festering and stinking, waiting to smear all over the instep of unwary bare feet or to cake up in the ridges of a sneaker sole. At the back door there was a clothes line and disintegrating wooden sandbox we couldn’t play in because the neighborhood cats like to use it for their potty. The holly tree my mother loved shed a carpet of hard pointy leaves next to the sand box all summer, so playing there was nearly impossible without spiking your bare foot or getting the thorn caught in your hand if you fell. Rusty’s dog house was directly beneath the tree, and he guarded his lair with feral ferocity. Maybe the stickers made him aggressive about his house. No one was sure what made that dog so wolfish about his little shack.
I walked to the gate and waited a minute for Rusty to be distracted by a squirrel to another area of the yard. If I opened the gate while he was near me, he would bum rush the opening and streak free down the street towards Flash, another cross-breed dog (collie and husky) who was also very protective of his own territory. There had already been two incidents where these dogs got into big fights. Because Flash was larger and much stronger than Rusty, the matches were very short. Our little mutant took a bad beating each time; during the second incident, his throat was torn open by Flash’s sharp fangs and it took 45 stitches to close that wound. Despite his past injuries, Rusty was always ready for round three, and was forever vigilantly waiting and searching for his chance to escape his chain link prison.
I got through the gate while the dog loped after an errant squirrel, his long body contracting and extending more like a cat than a canine. What he lacked in leg size he more than made up for by using his unique anatomy like a coiled spring. Rusty was fast, but the squirrel was faster, and led the dog to a far corner of the yard, allowing my escape.
My mother always parked her car on a spot beside a crabapple tree in the side yard. The car tires wore a short parallel trail in the lawn where Mama parked, and I pretended it was the beginning of a long wagon train to the west. But I didn’t want to play that, not that day. I sat down and began poking a stick in the sandy soil. I was to start real school, first grade, in just a few weeks, and I practiced my printing. I drew careful letters in the sand. U h A N U e. My older sister had already taught me how to write my name, in a way. She told me that the letter c was like a sideways cup. I didn’t understand the sideways part, so I drew upright cups for Cs when I printed my name. They looked like U’s.
“Hey Chance. What are you doing?” Ronnie, the older, bigger boy from next door on Belle Claire Road walked up from behind me, causing me to jerk my hand so my name became UhA~x.
“Nothing. Ollie Mae told me to play outside or Marilyn Monroe was going to come take me to hell.”
“Marilyn Monroe? Yeah, she’s gonna come get you. Do you know who she is?”
“Not really. Some grownup who’s dead, I guess. Ollie Mae says she’s in hell because she killed herself.” I kept swirling the stick in the sand.
Ronnie sat down next to me, picked up a twig, and started doodling on the ground beside my letters. “What do you like to draw?”
“I don’t know. People, I guess. I like drawing flowers and stars. I like stars a lot.”
“Can you draw yourself?”
“Huh? Make a picture of me?”
“Yeah, can you draw yourself?”
“Sure. I can draw myself.”
“Can you draw your tallywacker?”
I sat staring down at my practice signatures and wondered why he wanted to know if I could draw a penis. “I wear pants. I don’t need to draw my tally.”
Ronnie laughed and scrubbed his bare foot across my scribblings. “You can’t be a great artist without drawing your tallywacker. Known fact. I’m going into seventh grade this term, so I know.”
“Bout time. Didn’t you go to sixth grade twice? My mama says you did.”
“That just means I learned twice as much as a regular sixth grader. Anyway, what do you know? You’re not even in first grade yet.”
“I went to kiddie garden. I’m almost in first grade, and I can write so maybe they will put me in second grade, or maybe even third,”
“You make C’s look like U’s. You’re a dummy.”
His childish insult hit me. My eyes filled with hot tears and I threw down my stick, glaring at the ground, not Ronnie. I hated being picked on by the much older boy. “I’m not a dummy. You the dummy. Leave me alone!”
“What you young’uns doing out there?” Ollie Mae must have heard me crying and she hung off from the back porch stretching her body, craning her neck to see around the corner.
“Nothing Miss Ollie Mae.” Ronnie called out to her with a too polite voice.
“Well you be shore you ain’t torturing that child, Mister Ronnie. Miz Pate won’t have it.”
“I won’t, Miss Ollie Mae!” Ronnie got up and punched me on the top of my shoulder. His voice changed to a hoarse, menacing whisper. “Don’t you tell nobody what I was talking about. I’ll get you and beat you up if you tell.”
His punch didn’t really hurt too much, but the intention behind it stung, so I welled up with tears again. “I won’t tell.”
I wished that Ronnie didn’t live next to us. He was always bullying me, telling me secrets about tallywackers, trying to get me to take mine out. My older sister, Elizabeth Jane, acted funny around him, smiling a lot and telling him how smart or funny he was. For a couple of weeks she had me taking notes across the fence to him, because at the time I couldn’t read and she assumed her feelings were safe and secret. They weren’t.
Ronnie had a younger sister, Barbara, older than me but not as old as Elizabeth Jane. She could read, and she intercepted the notes through me. We both sat in the shade of the cedar tree at the end of the driveway while Barbara read aloud the love letters Elizabeth Jane had me deliver, and of course the responses back from Ronnie. There was a lot of “I like you do you like me” types of sentiments, but the one that made us laugh the most was when Ronnie asked Elizabeth Jane to show him her boobies if she wanted to be his girlfriend.
Barbara became serious after she read Ronnie’s demand to my sister. “Elizabeth Jane doesn’t have boobies yet. And Ronnie is a spy. He’s seen boobies and probably more. I know he looked at me through the keyhole in the bathroom the other day. I could hear him.” She lowered her voice. “He’s sexed up.”
I didn’t know what sexed up meant, but I had an idea it had to do with him asking me to draw my penis, or with my sister showing him her boobies. So when he asked me that hot afternoon to draw myself, I wasn’t surprised. He had done it before. And I always refused.
Ronnie left me sitting there that day with a sore arm and tender feelings. I guessed he was going to go bother Barbara or go inside where it was cool to watch TV. I was just happy he left.
The afternoon buzzed on, cicadas whining in the trees while baking off their outer skins. The sun was strong and bright. But the humidity remained, and even the grass looked wilted and steamed. The heat rose up in waves from the blacktop of the street. I looked up Avondale Drive to the next block. A few weeks ago a little girl and her family moved into the second house nearest the alley. Now she was out in her front yard playing with a large doll so tall that almost came up to her nose. I could hear her from our driveway. “Walk! Come on! Step! Step! Step!”
“Hey!” I shouted down the street. The girl looked up at me and waved. I made sure Ollie Mae wasn’t looking and ran across the street and through the neighbor’s yard to get to the her. “Hey. What you doing?” I stood next to the large doll she was now balancing on its legs. The doll was just barely shorter than me, but then I was small for my age
“Hi! This is my doll Betty. She walks. Well she walks sometimes. It’s hard to get her legs to go just right.”
“It’s almost as big as me.”
“She’s a she, not an it. What’s your name?”
“My name is Chance Pate. I live over there.” I pointed to our house down the block. This girl seemed a little bossy, and she was definitely bigger than me. She was almost the same size as my big sister.
“I’m Jo Wren Glen. Wren like the little bird. My daddy calls me his little bird.”
I wondered where he saw the little part. She towered over me. I looked her up and down thinking maybe she was older. “I’m six already. Where do you go to school?”
“I’m five so I start kindergarten soon. Mama says in just a couple of weeks.”
“I did play school last year. I’m going into first grade at Heyward Gibbes Elementary. That’s where all the kids from around here go. They got all the way up through junior high kids there.”
“Kindergarten ain’t play. It’s real school.”
I thought for a minute. “I can write. Wanna see?”
Jo Wren brushed her hands together and stood next to me giving me the once over as well. She was taller than me by four inches, and heavier too, and I was surprised that I was older than her. She turned and looked at the front door to her new home. “I’d rather play a game. You wanna play a game? You wanna play with me? I got a toy house in the back yard, but we have to be quiet. Mommy’s in her room taking a nap.”
I had never seen that backyard. There was a high wooden fence around it, blocking it from my view. “Sure. You got a toy house?” I wondered what a toy house would look like. Was it the size of a doll house? Bigger? Filled with toys?
Jo Wren took my hand and dragged me over to the back fence down the alley in long strides. There was no gate to the outside- you could only get inside the backyard area by going through the house or climbing over the fence. “We have to be quiet so we’ll climb over here.” She put her foot on an angled brace and grabbed the top of the fence. She made her way up the brace to the top, then jumped over. I heard her land on the other side with a wooden thud. “Come on! Do what I did! But put Betty over the fence first!”
I picked up the cumbersome doll and pushed it over. I heard it land with a crack and a gasp but nothing else, so I started up the brace the same way that Jo Wren did. When I got to the top, I had my first glimpse of that mysterious backyard. My balance was unsteady so I had to hold on tight or I would lose footing and fall. There was a small, child-sized house right on the other side of the brace, the top of its roof not rising above the level of the top of the fence. I swung my legs over and stepped on the wooden platform that made up the roof of the front porch on the tiny building. Below me was Jo Wren and the doll which had one plastic leg cracked at the knee.
“See what you did to her?”
“How did I do that? You didn’t catch it?”
“She’s not an it! I done told you!” Her voice got very loud. I saw curtains moving on a window near the far corner of the house. Jo Wren saw them too and lowered her voice. “My mommy woke up. We gotta be real quiet. She ain’t finished with her nap.”
The jump to the ground was a little further than I expected, but my landing was cushioned by a sandbox. A metal sand shovel bent under the heel of my hard soled shoe, throwing up grit into my face. “Oof!” That came out loud too, and the curtains fluttered again.
“Shh! You gotta be more quieter!” Jo Wren’s whisper was almost as loud as her shout.
“What if we wake her up? What happens?”
“She’ll tear you up. I promise. My mommy’s mean. Get inside the toy house.”
The small door led into a tiny room three steps deep and six steps wide. The ceiling was low, only about three feet from the top of my head, and the top of the window came up to my chin. I felt huge. Jo Wren pushed me in further, closed the door, and sat down. She began to fiddle with Betty’s dress- a red one with puffy sleeves, a white Peter Pan collar, and a flared skirt held out by cheap crinoline. Soon Betty was dressed only in a pair of molded on plastic panties, her hair disheveled from the efforts made while being disrobed.
“Why’d you do that? Why’d you take off those clothes?”
“I want a walking doll and you broke Betty.”
“I didn’t break Betty.”
Jo Wren stepped closer to me, grasping the red frock up to her chest. “You the one who threw her so you the one who gotta make it right. You gotta be Betty.”
“I ain’t gone be your doll.”
“Yes you are. I bet you fit in this dress.” She thrust it out towards me and shook it. “Take it and put it on.”
“I ain’t gone put on that dress.”
Jo Wren stepped closer and loomed over me. She was so much bigger than me, like I said almost as big as my sister Elizabeth Jane and just as menacing. I was so small that the younger girl could easily overpower me, so I bargained. “I don’t think it’ll fit over my clothes.”
“Take off your clothes. Just put it on over your underpants.” She stood next to me and stretched a little. It made her look even larger.
“Not with you looking I won’t. And I don’t care what you say about that. I’ll only do it if you turn around and don’t peek.”
She turned her back and made a long, drawn out sigh. I tried to take down my pants, but my shoes were in the way. They slipped off as I dragged my pants over them, and they remained stuck in the legs. I shucked off my T shirt, then shimmied into the doll dress. The shoulders were a little tight, and I couldn’t take a full breath, but it sort of fit. Jo Wren turned her head slightly. “You got it on yet?” She shuffled her feet.
“Yeah. I got it on.”
She turned around. “All you need is long curly hair and you’re a girl!” She smiled wide and spun me around. “Now walk like Betty!”
I did a stiff-legged march across the small floor, turned, and marched the same way back. “Can I take this off now? I don’t want to be a play Betty doll.”
Jo Wren looked at me with her head down, a steely glint in her eyes. “You wear what I tell you to wear and we play what I want. It’s my yard and you broke my doll.”
“I didn’t break it.”
“Stop calling her an ‘it’ before I get mad!” She stomped her foot and the entire house shook.
I stood in the tight dress and took a few more stiff steps for Jo Wren. The window was to my right and I could see all the way to the backdoor of her regular-sized house. Suddenly there was a loud bang as the screen door swung open and slammed against the brick wall. A large pink and white blur with dark hair rushed towards the toy house. Jo Wren got very still and put her fingers up to her lips, this time in a silent shush.
It did no good. Her mother woke yet again when Jo Wren stomped her foot on the hollow floor of the toy house; the reverberating thud cracked through the air. The woman nearly flew over and wrenched open the tiny door, sticking her head inside, breathing hard like an angry bull on a Looney Tunes cartoon. Even my daddy didn’t get so angry looking, and I jumped back from the bull/woman at the door, tearing the doll dress as I inhaled deeply for a scream that never got to my lips. I looked down at the torn dress in horror as it slipped to the floor in two halves separated from the puffy sleeves. I looked like I was wearing little tiny red water wings and white swim trunks.
Jo Wren laughed at me. He mother did not. “What are you doing in here? Why are you wearing no clothes? Who are you?”
She was even louder than I expected turning my shocked silence turn into a frightened scream. “ “My my my n n n name is Ch Chance P Pate.” I blubbered uncontrollably, afraid the big loud woman was going to spank me or worse yet, tell me parents that I was standing around in the toy house with a doll dress on. Her red rage scared me. “We was playing and the doll broke and I fit the dress so I was the d d d doll.” My wails trailed off into hiccuped sobs.
Jo Wren laughed a little more then looked at her mother with a serious face. “Yes Mommy. We were playing and Chance wanted to be the doll.”
“I didn’t w w want to be the doll. You m m made me!”
Her mother seemed to calm down a bit, breathing less like a bull from a Saturday morning cartoon, but still puffing heavily and rapidly. She was fat like my grandfather who also breathed hard whenever he did just about anything, including bending over to tie his shoes. Her jiggly arm reached forward and jerked Jo Wren to the outside on the little porch of the toy house. She stuck her head back inside. “Listen, you change back into your clothes, and then you go home.” She dragged her little girl to the back door of the big house. “You go on now. Do what I told you and go home.”
I heard the back door slam and a series of small yelps that I assumed were coming from Jo Wren while she got a spanking. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. I struggled to free my stuck shoes from the legs on my pants, then struggled more to get everything back on and secured. I still couldn’t tie my shoes very well. I dragged my feet to the back door and knocked.
Jo Wren’s mother appeared looking angry and impatient. She opened it only a crack and I could feel the cool whoosh of air conditioning. “What do you want now? I told you to go home.”
“I can’t tie my shoes. I don’t know how.”
She blew air hard from her nose. “Stick your foot up here.”
I balanced on one foot while she tied the shoe, then switched to the other side, almost toppling over. When she was done she pulled me into the house and pushed me through to the front door. “Now go home and don’t be climbing over that fence no more. GO home!”
I ran down the block, through the neighbor’s yard, and climbed over our fence. Rusty lumbered up to snuffle at me as I ran for the back door. When I got inside Ollie Mae was mopping the floor around the kitchen table. “Don’t you track yo dirty feet over my clean floor!”
“It ain’t your floor!”
“Why is yo clothes on funny?”
I looked down at my pants. I had put them on backwards. My shoes were tied but they were on the opposite feet. Mrs. Glen had not bothered to tell me I had them on the wrong foot. And my T shirt was inside out. “I was in the sandbox so I shook them off before I came into the house.”
“Now I knows that a lie. I can see that box from here. It ain’t been played in, ‘cept for maybe them cats what use it for a outhouse. Yo lies gonna get you to hell, just like I tolds you, just like that Marilyn Monroe.”