Violet Durkey has a hamster and a miniature turtle who lives in a shallow plastic bowl under a palm tree with snap-on fronds, and an albino rabbit named Snuffles with pink ears from Easter. It's the hamster I'm thinking about here.
One night he nosed out of his poorly latched cage and scampered across the glowing iron surface of the gas heater, blistering the bottoms of his tiny pink feet, the same feet whose weensy, lizard-like nails Violet had wanted to lacquer Sashay Pink. (Her mom said oh no Violet.) The vet prescribed a greenish antibiotic balm Violet was meant to smudge on with a Q-tip every morning. This balm, deemed icky by Violet, was so tasty to Hamster that he not only licked it up but ultimately (unbelievably) came to nibble off the digits (fingers? toes?) on all four of his feet, which act left him-when Violet burst in from school that day-with bleeding stumps so painful for everybody to look at that he had to be put to sleep.
Violet told this tale of woe in the skating rink's tiny toilet-her blue eyes misting over and her Earth Angel Pink mouth quivering while Ruth Ann, Sherry, and Suzy Torvino gathered around. The skating rink was a hurricane-fence cage with a brown canvas roof and vinyl flags like those you see in a used car lot strung whapping around its perimeter. From box speakers mounted at the tent's four corners, the Beatles sang that she loved us yah, yah, yah. This song was warped by coming through the pink plywood door to where we stood at a makeshift sink with little blue packets of Wash-'N'-Dri for after you got done peeing. (Actually, because I never overtly peed on my hands, I neverbothered with hand washing anyway.)
In the tiny mirror that hung from a nail poked in fiberboard, Violet's round, clear face was flushed under her pale freckles. This was the year before we all hit sixth grade. Violet straightened her curly brown hair not with bouts of Curl Free, which her mother said she was too young for, but by having her big sister steam iron said hair under a towel, using clouds of Aqua Net after to hold it. But in the close humid air of that bathroom, the hair spray was failing. From Violet's otherwise glossy pageboy, small ringlets were breaking loose at the hairline, seizing up in a way that evoked Renaissance paintings (Hans Somebody the Elder) that my mother praised for their delicacy. (The fact that Mother, who was a painter, kept art books deemed our entire clan somewhat suspect.)
In short, Violet was beautiful, and much beloved by the general populace. Her parents and two teenage sisters pampered her, yet she managed to represent herself as both entitled to that pampering and somehow surprised by it. The skates she owned (not rented) had held no one's feet but hers and did not leave her socks smelling like goat turd. They fit exactly. They were fresh-polished nurse white and had pink pom-poms laced to the toes. The pom-poms matched her gingham clam-digger pants with the knee ruffle, and those matched her crop-top. She and her mother had stitched this outfit up themselves from the Simplicity pattern that morning. When, during school, I whined out loud about my lack of wearable dresses (I had scads but only deigned to wear four of the least babyish ones, and so had to repeat my Monday dress each Friday), Violet always asked why I didn't just stitch something up. She recommended me to Sigona's dry goods, where a bin of mod print remnants cost just fifty cents each. More than once she told me that a dress for me probably wouldn't take a yard.
She might as well have asked why I didn't slay a zebra for its hide for all the interest I had in sewing.
Violet smelled like grated lemon peel and baby powder. Her Snoopy box purse, balanced open on the sink edge, held a miniature packet of pink tissues for just such weepy moments. There was also a pink rat-tail brush, and a minuscule glass vial of perfume that reminded me of nothing so much as a cyanide capsule from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., my favorite TV show about international spies.
I poked my head past the elbows of girls encircling her while she dabbed under her lashes with the Kleenex wad. I asked to borrow her brush, hoping that this begged favor might buy me entry to their circle when gawking outside it for fifteen minutes had failed to.
"I'm sorry, Mary." Violet talked in italics sometimes when addressing me, the way you would to a deaf person or foreigner you were pretty sure otherwise wouldn't twig to what you were saying. "My mother won't let me loan it out. I'd get in so much trouble." It seemed that Mrs. Durkey feared Violet's glossy head would wind up squirming with head lice if she passed her brush around (a not unfounded fear). With that, I was dismissed. She drew back into the comfort of her friends. In a nonitalicized voice, Violet told Ruth Ann and Sherry and Suzy Torvino that they needed to bring their own pillows to her sleepover that Friday.
My expression must have altered, for Violet's eyes in the tiny mirror clicked in and then detached from Sherry's and Ruth Ann's in turn. We'd all been on a cobbled-together track team that summer, myself the relay alternate, and I'd fancied myself somehow welded into Violet's good graces by a meet we all traveled to in Houston. But Violet's gaze, which had lit on the floor, said otherwise.
"You're having a sleepover?" I finally said.
This kind of overt angling for invitations was part of what kept me outside the elbows of those girls. I seemed destined to blunder into conversations nobody else cared to have. Most girls knew better. If Mavis Clay had overheard her own omission from such a party, she would have skated out without a word. But I had to pipe up, to worm the mystery of the event into the air. (Counterphobic, some shrink will later call it, being magnetically drawn to whatever one fears most.)
"See my mom only told me I could have five girls, and Ruth Ann's my best friend, and Sherry's my second-best, and Suzy's my third. And if I don't invite Joettie Bryant, she won't invite me to her trampoline party. And if I don't invite Lynda Delano, her dad will yell at my dad at work. And if I don't invite Jasmine Texler, Joettie can't come because her mom goes to Church of Christ and doesn't know my mom." Violet gaped at my ignorance of these complex barters in social currency, and all the girls but Ruth Ann mirrored that gaping. (Ruth Ann was someone whose calm blue eyes tended to fall on me at such moments with something like care.)
"But that's six girls," I said. Violet looked puzzled, her head cocked itself a notch to the right. I held up my hand and counted them off each finger. "Ruth Ann, Sherry, Suzy, Jasmine, Joettie, Lynda." With Lynda I stuck my thumb into the air and let my jaw hang.
"Well okay." She looked imperiously at me. "My mom said I could only have six girls then."
Such was the early logic of exclusion, as explained to me by Violet Durkey-who, in all fairness, committed no crime other than being adorable enough that I wished to be her. I don't remember if I actually told Violet Durkey at that instant that she was a snotball and her hamster probably ate his feet off as part of a suicide plan to get loose from her. At some point in my social career, I did let such a comment fly. Which is precisely why I didn't get asked to sleepovers. Other girls from families weird as mine managed to overcome their origins. Lecia got invited out by popular girls. So did Jasmine Texler, who'd moved to our town after her mom drank a bottle of laundry bluing and died. Jenny Raines even got elected cheerleader though her mom lived in the state loony bin.
Without the company of other girls, the summer became the first of many vastly vacant summers, a long white scroll of papyrus onto which something longed to be writ. Unless I'd found some book to lose myself in (the ferocity of my appetite for books rivaled a junkie's for opiate), the idleness was stultifying.
That summer I fell into reading as into a deep well where no voice could reach me. There was a poem about a goat-footed balloon man I recited everyday like a spell, and another about somebody stealing somebody else's plums and saying he was sorry but not really meaning it. I read the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and fancied myself running away to Africa to find just such an ape man to swing me from vine to vine.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird three times in one week, closing it on the last page, then cracking it open again to the first till the binding came unglued and had to be masking-taped back on. In it, a girl my age got rescued from a lunatic trying to kill her by the town bogey man, who'd years before stabbed his daddy with scissors while cutting paper dolls. She actually took this guy Boo by the hand and made friends with him, showing a courage and care beyond anything I could ever muster. (When our town maniac, a massively fat man named Otis, came shuffling down the road talking in whispers about Jesus and the Blessed Virgin and the good elves of this world, I always crossed to the other side.) In the second or third grade, I'd seen the movie of this book, and always superimposed my own face over that of the puckish Scout, while also picturing for myself the chiseled resolve of the young Gregory Peck playing her daddy. Inside their story, I could vanish from myself.
But books have last pages. The instant I finished one such page, I'd be forced to look up at whatever soap opera I had on. In the overacted, melodramatic gestures of those black-eyelined actresses I felt my own day's heaviness even more keenly. They flung their wrists to their foreheads in torment, or clutched their own heaving bosoms, or pitched their black-veiled selves across glossy coffins. In short, they moved through dramas of consequence far beyond any I'd ever be called to act in.
Mostly, the house was empty. When Daddy wasn't pulling shift work at the refinery, he either tried to cadge some sleep or stayed off on mysterious rounds. At thirteen, my sister Lecia had already manufactured a persona for herself that ranged free of the family and its unspoken stigmas. She filled out a 36C cup and dated a variety of football stars. When she climbed the bleachers at a game with legs a yard long in cutoff jeans, her blond flip sprayed into a form no wind could alter, high schools boys stood up by the row.
Mother was only in her studio one afternoon a week, not painting, but teaching painting to various Leechfield housewives. In response to an ad she'd run in the Gazette, women came to set up easels there Wednesday afternoons. To keep them from baking alive, Daddy installed a secondhand window air conditioner that leaked icy water into a pie tin with a steady drip that marked those otherwise timeless afternoons like a conductor's baton. I was supposed to be exiled to the house for these sessions, for which the ladies paid good money to have Mother stare with furrowed concern bordering on horror at their canvases-muddy-looking peaches and grapes, stiff-backed sunflowers stuck dead center lackluster vases. The worst were the portraits-kids and grandkids mostly, with massive hydrocephalic foreheads and wall-eyed expressions. ("One eye's looking at you and one's looking for you," Daddy said of one.)
The percolator would burble up the burnt coffee smell under the pine resins from the turpentine, a heady mixture that drew me from the solitary house's endless black-and-white soap operas. Mostly, I'd just sit outside the door on the hood of Mother's yellow station wagon in the dark garage, listening to the ladies' endless complaints about their husbands. I specifically recall one lady saying she wouldn't let her husband touch her pocketbook (a word I'd somehow always known was a euphemism for pussy) till he'd bought her a dishwasher.
"Hell, you might as well sell it down on Proctor Street, if that's the deal," Mother said. You could hear the intakes of breath all around, and pretty soon the offended lady came bumping out the door, wet canvases in hand. Once or twice I'd stand in the doorway and wheedle for my own sketch pad and charcoal and one of those giant beige gum erasers that I liked to eat when I was littler.
Other days, Mother was at college studying for her teaching certificate-a real oddity back when few moms worked outside the home. But she wanted a higher standard life than the local average and feared destitution at every turn. (Ironically enough, it was her own extravagant habits that tended to edge us to that brink. During a few screaming matches over debts she ran up, my daddy accused her of far outspending anything she earned teaching, but I wouldn't swear this was true.) Her college work seemed to me like yet another escape route from the banality of time at home with us.
Mother also had a secret history of hasty marriages and equally hasty dissolutions. Pretty much if you pissed her off good, you could expect to hear her tires tearing out the driveway. Within days, the knuckles of a process server would rap on your door. But I'm writing about the 1960s, when Lecia and I didn't yet know about all her pre-Daddy adventures. She ultimately racked up seven marriages in all, but we'd only witnessed the two to my daddy-with the short, nearly negligible blip of my stepfather. (He'd appeared after my grandmother's death, after Mother had been briefly carted off to the hospital for-among other things-the vast quantities of vodka she'd managed to guzzle.)
Such events kept our household from drawing much traffic. Kids loping straight through the yards on Garfield Road tended to cut an arc around ours as you might a graveyard. Probably this was more habit than any deliberate shunning, but the effect was the same.
With the house carved of human life, I took undue interest in the occasional chameleon that slithered from the tangle of honeysuckle through the vents of the air conditioner in my room. Once I spent a whole morning at the bathroom mirror trying to get one such unfortunate lizard to serve as a dangly earring by biting my earlobe. (If you squeezed his soft neck just right, his mouth would open like a clasp.) But he'd only bite down for a second or so before his jaw opened and he fell down my shirt front or into the sink and I'd have to catch him again. His tail finally broke off, and our Siamese-then hugely pregnant-wolfed him down her gullet in two quick swallows.
The house held me in a kind of misty nether-time. The air conditioner hummed. The refrigerator kicked on and lapsed off. I waited a lot, though for what I don't know. Nothing whatsoever seemed to be approaching from any direction. I wait like an ox, Franz Kafka wrote and Mother underlined in one of her college books. The sentence was copied down like an axiom into one of the dozen or so Big Chief tablets I bought that summer, then let stay blank after a few scribbled pages.
But if it's great literature you're after, Big Chief tablets seem gray-paged and flimsy, too pale to inscribe with genius of the caliber I aspired to. So I pilfered a black leather sketchbook from Mother's studio. To disguise my theft, I glued green and red Christmas glitter on the cover in a swirly pattern meant to be hypnotic. I never ripped out her pencil sketches of fishing boats, or the advice on portraiture she'd dated 1964: "Details of features not as important as mood, character, or manner etc. Artist must be proficient enough to work intuitively. Relatives or friends may not see person truly." Under this, I wrote in baroque cursive: "Me too-Mary Karr 1966."
To hold that book in my hand-its simple bulk and being-is to grasp onto the hard notch from some faintly erased time line and draw myself back there. Opening it, I breathe old air.
Any fable I've told about who I was then dissolves when I read that loose-jointed script I wrote. We tend to overlay grown-up wisdoms across the blanker selves that the young actually proffer. (When my son was born, I remember staring into his blue, wondering eyes, then asking the obstetrical nurse what he might be thinking. "You know the static channel on your TV?" she answered.)
So in actual written artifacts from my past, I sound way less smart than I tend to recall having been. My poems clip-clop doggedly along, less verse than trotting prayers, wishes to become someone other than who I found myself to be, to feel other than how I felt. The diary entries don't differ from any eleven-year-old's, though the pathos I found in them makes me wince: "I am not very successful as a little girl," I wrote. "When I grow up, I will probably be a mess." The Sharp family had dragged me to two tent revival meetings that summer in a town called Vidor (famous, by the way, for its Ku Klux Klan fish fries). On those steamy nights where people fanned their dripping faces with funeral fans on which a blue-robed Jesus knocked on a gleaming golden door, I never followed the weeping line of believers to the altar to dedicate my life to the Lord. But the rhetoric stayed with me. My writings are rotten with it. Mountains crumble and rivers run dry, etc. Rainbows come out after floods worthy of Noah. Every cheek is rosy, every cloud silver-lined. Reading those pages, you can almost hear the tambourines shaking in the background and a surge of ballpark organ music as the preacher asks you to testify.
Unfathomably, the career path I drew was the strange one I wound up undertaking, "to write 1/2 poetry and 1/2 autobiography." Though I never managed to wrest for myself a career as "philosipher," whatever I thought that meant, I also longed also to become "a real woman, a hardworking woman with a pure soul. Not just a perfumed woman on the outside."
I also wrote a lot of poems for the star of a cowboy show on TV called Branded, on whom I'd developed a wicked crush. In fantasy, he was interchangeable with Marshal Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke and Palladin from Have Gun Will Travel-cowboys who would soon magically transform into knights in armor after I discovered tales of chivalry. Jason McSomething, I think they called him. He'd been falsely convicted of treason during a Civil War battle and sentenced to hang before escaping. Most episodes, he galloped around the West looking for folks who could prove he wasn't a big sissy who ran out on his regiment. But somebody who thought him guilty would always pop up, so he'd have to slink out of town-hiding under some wagon straw or holding onto the side of a train. Always he left behind some widow schoolteacher or banker's daughter he was just fixing to get frisky on. I devoted more than a few pages to praising Jason's long suffering. (The stoicism I favored was less in the mode of Marcus Aurelius and more reminiscent of the donkey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.) I imagined him hoisting cups sadly in the air, saying goodbye to folks he'd never see again. One reads, "Faithful companions we may be./ But, Soldier, fill no glass for me!" That sort of thing.
When the pencil lead wore down and faded to slate gray, I'd sometimes walk to remote neighborhoods and knock on the doors of strange houses. If someone answered, I'd claim I was trying to sell Christmas cards, though I lacked any samples or other convincing evidence that this was so. I don't recall trying to extort actual dollars. (I had money, and there was nothing to buy anyway.) I just had nothing better to do.
People were damn nice about it. They handed me sugar cookies and Rice Krispie Treats in waxed paper, foil-wrapped kisses and hard candy by the fistful, but no Christmas card orders got totted down, even though I copied some random names from the phone book to convince everybody how well cards were selling.
Once a middle-aged woman in a pale blue duster hovered in the doorway a minute before bursting into tears. She put both hands on her jowly face. The tears rivered between her knobby fingers while I tried to figure out how to flee. Cool air spilled from her house as I stood melting in the heat.
"It's okay, baby," she said, into the damp palms pressed over her mouth after I'd said I was sorry for about the fifteenth time. "You just put me in mind of my boy. He's passed over-" She choked off a sob, a body-wracking convulsion that really made me wonder if people could break in half with grief.
Finally she gathered herself up. For a heartbeat's space, neither of us said anything. Then her shoulders relaxed a whit. "Do you want to see?" she finally asked, in a voice hardly above a whisper. She didn't even say see what. Nor did I run through any of the dire warnings I'd heard about getting in cars or houses with strangers. Maybe that's odd. Doubtless a more regular kid would have cobbled up a dental appointment to bolt off to. But the weight of her grief drew me to her. She held open the aluminum screen an extra notch for me to pass through.
The living room was cold as a meat locker and smelled like a pot of cabbage left too long on the stove. The light was muddy as gloom, all the shades being drawn flush to the sills. She'd also laid down plastic runners along the most traveled paths to keep the carpet naps fluffy. So plastic paths led from the door where I stood to a mossy-looking plaid sofa, then zigzagged to what must have been kitchen and bedroom and bath. Tables that would have hit you at knee level or shin level in the dark crowded every inch of available floor space, and were themselves packed with little porcelain figurines. A more useless assemblage of objects I've never seen-hoop-skirted shepherdesses with pilgrim's staffs, guys with powdered wigs, dinner bells, and gilt-edged snuff boxes. I remember specifically a disembodied female hand with rings and bracelets and red nails. The hand seemed to be reaching up from under the wood grain.
The dead boy's pictures lined one whole wall. Of his face, I remember almost nothing. He was blond when little, and his hair got darker as he grew. What's stuck with me in those staggered pictures' advance through his short life were the costumes marking any boy's inching toward manhood-a toddler with suspendered shorts; a school-age boy with a homemade birthday hat; then a Little Leaguer's striped knickers; baptismal robes; and finally a gangly teen in a white dinner jacket holding a corsage box.
"He shot himself," she said. Her face told me it was on purpose. Up till that day, he'd been the perfect boy, she said. Then he went to a dancing party and asked a girl onto the floor. And she said no. He came home miserable, opened up the Bible to the Twenty-third Psalm, and shot himself, right in the head. They were in the next room at the time watching Lawrence Welk's Champagne Music Hour.
What she did next is the kind of gesture I've since learned that I somehow invite. (After I stopped thinking of such moments as my fault and began to regard them as an odd form of privilege, I handled them better.) She steered me by my shoulder along another plastic path to the coffee table. I did not shrink from her touch. I both longed to see and dreaded what we were headed for: the worn black Bible on the rectangular laminated wood. A laminated card stuck out of the pages to keep the place.
Hefting up the Bible worked some tranquilizing voodoo on her. She became strangely calm, as if getting to the heart of some matter she'd been circling all day. She'd done it before and often. Her ease told me that. Some passing assemblage of milkmen and water-meter readers and Avon ladies had stood where I was standing and sought to arrange their faces into tolerable expressions, as I then did. Certainly I wanted to stay upbeat, but grinning like a monkey was way wrong. I settled on the look of earnest expectancy, but pleasant.
She opened the massive Bible and held it out for my study. A stain the color of burnt chocolate took up most of the pages' deep valley. The paper had puckered from the wet. Still the words were legible. "The Lord is my shepherd...," I read in my head.
Then I was saying a hasty goodbye, for only a few years before, my own wild-assed mother had threatened suicide. Part of me believed the notion was contagious, a germ I could pick up that might reinfect Mother. I didn't consciously ponder this, but it flitted through me strong enough that before the lady could say diddly, I was shaking her leathery cold hand on the porch in waves of heat. Then I was running home full tilt as if the house wouldn't be empty when I burst in. The tedium there was suddenly preferable to the terror of those houses I loped past, inside which were unknown losses.
Sometime that summer I stopped prowling around strange houses and concocted a real job shining shoes at the barbershop. This act of mine thwarted Daddy's vow that his daughters never work for pay while under his roof. Still, I defied that order by taking his shoeshine box to the shop and weaseled myself a post in the red leather shine chair.
The shop held special allure that week since I'd overheard somewhere that John Cleary was going in for his annual crew cut the next day. I watched in worshipful silence as, under Mr. DePello's humming clippers, hanks of John's shining yellow hair fell in slow strips to the linoleum, where it was swept into the copper dustpan. Afterward, his shaved and knobby skull floated in Mr. DePello's hand mirror. There'd been around his ears that strip of untanned scalp we called "white sidewalls." John's hand ran over the stubble real slow, as if it held for him a great mystery. The gesture was one that drifted back to me in my bed at night, such puzzled tenderness as he touched that bristle. Maybe he even caught a mirrored glimpse of my figure in the giant red vinyl shine chair, for my awe must have been palpable. Mr. DePello untied the apron and shook it so short hairs fell to the floor in cuneiform patterns. John handed the mirror back and said yessir looks good, thank you. To me he said seeya at school, though school was months off and our paths till then crossed practically every day.
The bell jangled as he left. I watched him swing his leg over his bike and shove off down the sidewalk in a strip of sunlight. Long after he'd gone, I resisted the urge to snatch a handful of his clean yellow hair from my suddenly growing collection of John Cleary memorabilia.
Probably this unlikely brush with his grooming habits kept me coming back to the barbershop another day or so. But he never showed up again. No one my age did. Nor did I ever have a single customer. And I was, if not overtly lazy, quick to bore. The slow turning of Field and Stream pages (they allegedly hid the Playboys in a drawer when I showed up) and the repetitive, metallic snip of Mr. DePello's slender scissors on some bald guy's tonsurelike fringe eventually wore me down to my natural, nail-biting state.
After I watched Song of Bernadette on TV that summer, I drew in my glitter-spackled book a picture of Jesus. For a while, I prayed ardently on my knees by my bedside-not yet for titties or for John Cleary to ask me to the couples' skate, but for a best friend.
Only one girl showed outlaw tendencies nearly as wild as mine: Clarice Fontenot, who at fourteen had three years on me, which discrepancy didn't seem to matter at first. The only obstacle to our spending every conceivable second together that summer was her Cajun daddy's tight rein on her, which consisted of seemingly innumerable chores and capricious rules he ginned out.
The Fontenots lived in a celery-green house on the corner that seemed to bulge at its seams with her wild-assed brothers. They all slicked back their hair on the sides and walked with a sexy, loose-hipped slouch. If they looked at you at all, the glance came from the sides of their faces. Like their tight-lipped father, they barely spoke, just radiated a sly disapproval.
Clarice's role in that Catholic household seemed to be serving their needs. While they ran the roads, she scrubbed and hung laundry and baby-sat a variety of black-eyed cousins whose faces (like hers) were spattered with freckles as if flicked from a paintbrush. Her blights and burdens put me in mind of Cinderella's, though Clarice rarely whined. Still, her circumstances defined her somehow, for her jittery, electric manner seemed to have formed itself solely to oppose both her station in life and her brothers' quiet surliness.
Clarice would have hung out at my house every day for the abundant food and the air conditioning if not my somewhat peculiar company. But her daddy's strictness was the stuff of neighborhood legend. A compact, steel-gray man, he was about the only guy on our block who didn't do refinery work (I think he worked for the gas company). That he wore a tie to work made him not exotic but peculiar. No one's daddy knew his schedule or ever heard him say more than a passing hey. Usually, Clarice could only play at my house an hour or so before she'd be called home for chores. I didn't take these partings lightly.
Once she was back home, I'd patrol the strip of road before her house, skateboarding past palmettos and the dog run and back again, trying all the while to predict her return by the advance of her work. Window by window, the glass she was washing would lose its grease smears and begin to give back blue sky and flickers of sun when I rolled by. Or I'd watch through those windows while Clarice unhooked each venetian blind. I'd try to measure how long it would take for her to lower those blinds into the Clorox-fuming bathtub, to wash each slat, then towel it off and reappear to hang the blind, giving me an exasperated wave before moving to the next.
Sometimes her daddy just summoned her home for no reason. Which infuriated me. She'd joke that his fun-meter had gone off, some invisible gauge he had that measured the extent of her good time and sought to lop it off. He'd insist she stay in her own yard, and forbid me to cross over the property line. I'd pace their yard's edge for an hour at a pop, or just sit cross-legged along their hurricane fence line reading while their deranged German shepherd loped and bayed and threatened to eat my face off. From my lap I'd flip him the permanent bird using a Venus pencil to keep my fingers cocked in place. A few times, Clarice joined me in this border-holding action. She'd loiter in the heat on her side of the fence, glancing over her shoulder till her dad's gray face slid into a window or his gravelly voice shouted her in.
Doubtless her daddy meant this all as some kind of protection. Plenty of girls her age "got in trouble," and there were countless lowlife characters circling like sharks to pluck any unwatched female into libidinal activity in some hot rod or pickup truck. But my own parents were so lax about corralling me at all ("You can do anything you're big enough to do," Daddy liked to say) that I found Mr. Fontenot's strictures mind-boggling. In my head I engaged in long courtroom soliloquies about him, at the ends of which he and his feckless sons were led away shackled while a gavel banged and Clarice and I hugged each other in glee.
Clarice bridled against her daddy's limits but never actually broke the rules. She lacked both the self-pity and the fury I had in such abundance. She laughed in a foghorn-like blast that drew stares in public. She could belch on command loud enough to cause old ladies in restaurants to ask for far tables. I never mastered this. But thanks to her, I can whistle with my fingers, execute a diving board flip, turn a cartwheel, tie a slip knot, and make my eyeballs shiver like a mesmerist. While other people worried what would come of Clarice if she didn't calm down, for me she had the absolute power of someone who fundamentally didn't give a damn, which she didn't (other than toeing her father's line, which she seemed to do breezily enough).
My first memory of her actually comes long before that summer. It floats from the bleached-out time before we'd passed through the school doors, so we had no grade levels by which to rank ourselves.
A cold sun was sliding down a gray fall sky. Some older boys had been playing tackle football in the field we took charge of every weekend. In a few years, they'd be called to Southeast Asia, some of them. Their locations would be tracked with pushpins in red, white, and blue on maps on nearly every kitchen wall. But that afternoon, they were quick as young deer. They leapt and dodged, dove from each other and collided in midair. Bulletlike passes flew to connect them. Or the ball spiraled in a high arc across the frosty sky one to another. In short, they were mindlessly agile in a way that captured as audience every little kid within running distance of the yellow goalposts.
We could not help watching. Even after I stepped accidentally in a fire-ant nest and got a constellation of crimson bites on my ankles. Even after streetlights clicked on and our breaths began to spirit before us and to warm my hands I had to pull my arms from my sweatshirt sleeves, then tuck my fingers into my armpits so the sleeves flapped empty as an amputee's. In fact, even once the game had ended, when the big boys had run off to make phone calls or do chores, we stayed waiting to be called for supper. I can almost hear the melamine plates being slid from the various cupboards and stacked on tile counters. But having witnessed their game, we were loath to unloose ourselves from the sight of it.
It was before the time of stark hierarchies. Our family dramas were rumored, but the stories that would shape us had not yet been retold so often as to calcify our characters inside them. Our rivalries had not yet been laid down. No one was big enough to throw a punch that required stitches or to shout an invective that would loop through your head at night till tears made your pillowcase damp. Our sexual wonderings seldom called us to touch each other, just stare from time to time at the mystery of each other's pale underpants or jockey shorts, which we sometimes traded looks at under a porch or in the blue dark of a crawl space. For years our names ran together like beads on a string, JohnandBobbieClariceandCindyandLittleMary (as opposed to Big Mary, who was Mary Ferrell). With little need to protect our identities from each other, we could still fall into great idleness together-this handful of unwatched kids with nowhere to be.
At some moment, Clarice figured out as none of us had before how to shinny up the goalpost.
That sight of her squiggling up the yellow pole magically yanks the memory from something far-off into a kind of 3-D present. I am alive in it. There's early frost on the grass, and my ant bites itch. Clarice's limbs have turned to rubber as she wraps round the pole. She's kicked off her Keds, so her bare feet on cold metal give purchase. About a foot at a time she scoots up, hauls herself by her hands, then slides her feet high. And again. She's weightless as an imp and fast.
At the top of the pole, she rises balletic, back arched like a trapeze artist. She flings one hand up: Ta-da, she says, as if she were sheathed in a crimson-spangled bathing suit with fishnet hose and velvet ballet slippers, then again ta-da. We cheer and clap, move back to the ten-yard line to take her in better. This is a wonder, for her to climb so far above us. And there we align ourselves with the forces of awe that permit new tricks to be dreamed up on chilly fall nights when nothing but suppers of fried meat and cream gravy await us, or tepid baths.
For a few minutes, Bobbie Stuart tries to weasel up the other pole, but he's too stiff. His legs jackknife out from under him, and his arms can't hold his long thin body.
Then Clarice does something wholly unexpected for which she will be forever marked.
She sticks her thumbs in the gathered waistband of her corduroy pants with the cowgirl lassos stitched around the pockets. With those thumbs, she yanks both her pants and her undersancies down around her bare feet. She then bends over and waggles her butt at us as I later learned strippers sometimes do. Screams of laughter from us. John falls over and rolls on the ground like a dog, pointing up and laughing at her bare white ass, which still holds a faint tan line from summer.
We've just about got used to the idea of her butt when she executes another move. She wheels around to face us and show us her yin-yang, a dark notch in her hairless pudendum. Her belly is round as a puppy's jutted forward. Then our howls truly take on hyena-like timbre. And there across the ditch, which marks the realm of adult civilization, appears the fast moving figure of Mrs. Carter through leaf smoke of a ditch fire. She's holding the spatula in her hand with which she intends to blister our asses, Clarice's most specifically.
But she's a grown-up, Mrs. Carter. Her steps on the muddy slope are tentative. Not wanting to funk up her shoes with mud, she hesitates before she leaps across. And in that interval, Clarice slithers down the yellow pole and tears off in a streak. And the rest of us flee like wild dogs.
Decades later, I asked Clarice point blank why she did it. We were in our forties then, living two thousand miles apart, and talking-oddly enough-on our car phones. Her voice was sandpaper rough with a cold, but it still carried the shimmer of unbidden amusement. I'd only seen her every two or three years-the occasional holiday, at my daddy's funeral, and after Mother's bypass surgery when she kept vigil with me. Still, there's no one who'd be less likely to tell me a flat-footed lie. Across the hissing static, I asked why she took her pants down that day, whether somebody had dared her to and I just didn't remember.
The answer that she gave remains the truest to who she was and who I then so much needed her to be: "Because I could, I guess," she said. "Wasn't anybody around to stop me."