I made friends with some kids that lived up the hill, in a ratty little trailer with a half a shack slapped up against it. The girl's name was Sharon and she was my age and in my grade when we started back to school that fall. Sharon wore glasses and read a lot, just like me. I had gotten my glasses that summer, thick brown plastic frames with an elastic band to hold them tight to my head.
Suddenly I could see and read again for hours without the words on the page going all grey and wiggling away. Sharon had a brother Cassandra's age, named Chris, who was meaner than a snake. Even his momma didn't like him. He had shot Sharon right in the eye that summer with a BB gun and almost blinded her. She still had to wear an eye patch which I much envied and admired. When she was feeling generous, Sharon let me wear it; this drove Ruby bananas. "All them kids got pink eye," Ruby stated knowledgeably. "And they got the ring worm, too, most of the time. Just don't you be wearin' nothin' of that girls, ya hear me?" Well, Chris had the ring worm, that was for sure, all over his arms which were painted bright purple from daily applications of gentian violet. But, so far as I could tell, Sharon was vermin-free and her eyes were clear and I liked her fine. She wasn't near as bossy as Donna and she knew all the good places to hide in the woods.
We played in a meadow, high up on the hill behind our houses we called "The Secret Place". We never let Chris follow us up there, but Donna and Cassandra were frequently invited. Sharon knew so much about plants, showing us edible greens and medicinal weeds. We imagined we were Indians and gathered pinenuts and tried to dry and grind them into flour. The meadow was in a bowl surrounded by huge granite boulders, twenty to thirty feet tall and twice as wide.
"Glaciers brought these rocks here," Sharon informed us, showing us deep grooves cut in their sides from their gradual slide down the mountain. The boulders had deep mossy out growths resplendent with tiny alpine flowers. We chased butterflies and collected small pretty stones we found and left little alters set up, decorated with odd objects we had collected after each visit there. We made a pact that no one would ever know about this sacred place except us and we imagined that it had waited here silently for us through eons of time, undiscovered by any other people. There was a small spring from which flowed sweet cold water which we drank like a sacramental wine, dipping our faces down into the shallow pool. We lay on our backs and watched the clouds mass and run across the sky overhead. "There's a ship, see the sails?" Cassandra said. "It's running with the wind."
"No, Sharon replied, "It is a castle, see the towers sticking up above. There are flags fluttering from the look-out."
"I see a clown," I said, "With a doggy riding on his back. He is peddling on a tricycle and there is a balloon floating above their heads. See?"
Donna said, "I see beautiful women dancing in long silk gowns. See how their skirts twirl?" We could watch the clouds for hours, spilling down from the heights of the mountains above us, with shafts of sunlight exploding across the open spaces between cloud banks, their edges dappled silver and dark grey.
We often came to the meadow at dawn when the forest would be just coming back to wakefulness. We saw owls returning to their homes after a long night's hunt and listened to the song birds. Meadow larks gave out sudden piercing calls which always grabbed me in a place inside that longed to call back to them, to call them to me. Dewdrops sparkled on spiderwebs stretched across the running tendrils of the wild rose bushes. To me they looked like diamonds in the early morning sun. The smell of earth and rot and damp and green was strong in the meadow early in the morning before the sun came up high enough to evaporate the dew.
We dug a fire pit and made tea from sage or rosehips, feeding small twigs to the flames and talking about our lives, our families, our dreams, and our problems.
"I wish my Mom wasn't so sad and worried all the time," Donna told us. "She always wants me to be happy but every night she cries alone in her room." This surprised me. I always thought Ora had the perfect life.
"I wish my father was alive," Cassandra said. "I wish he would come get me and take me back to New York." That didn't surprise me at all. Cassandra always thought about her father, as if he was gonna be able to change what was happening to her. I heard this most in her voice when she said the Lord's Prayer, "Our father who art in heaven..." She really believed her father WAS in heaven, watching her. But, heaven was a long way from Yonkers and Lake Tahoe was farther away yet.
"I wish we had a steak to cook," said Sharon, a girl after my own heart.
"I wish Dad wouldn't drink," I thought silently, but said nothing, looking at the flames in the firepit and wondering if wishes ever could come true.
We went to a new school that year, just built, George Whittel Memorial, which had grade school classes in one wing as well as high school in the other. Our school colors were green and gold. The school was so new that the playgrounds had not been put in yet. We played Wild Horses from one ridge of the hillside to the other. We spied on the older kids during noon hour and were especially pleased and horrified when we caught them holding hands or, better yet, sneaking a kiss!
George Whittel had a big gymnasium and a basketball team and cheerleaders that looked so funny in their long plaid, pleated skirts and saddle oxfords, shaking their crepe paper pom-poms and yelling and singing the school song during pep rallies.
"Evereywhere we go--oh,
People want to know--oh.
Who we are--ah.
So, we tell them.
We are the Warriors,
Mighty, mighty warriors.
Everywhere we go--oh.
People want to know--oh,
Who we are--ah.
So, we tell them.
We are the Warriors,
Mighty, mighty warriors.
Everywhere we go-oh...."
on and on and on. A hypnotic chant that put the whole student body into a frenzy. I liked the pep rallies. I enjoyed watching the whole gym leap simultaneously to their feet, cheering and clapping and waving their arms in the air. It was my first experience in a large crowd of people and I would watch the others to see what I was supposed to do and then copy them closely. Pep rallies left me hoarse and gave me headaches but it was a comforting, pleasant pain.
We also had a large cafeteria that served hot lunches every day, a big change from the weenie roasts at the little school at the Y. I could smell that food cooking every morning by ten a.m. and my mouth watered. I could hardly concentrate on my classroom studies. It seemed like the other kids in my class were all slow readers. I was always bored when they read out loud, which was tortuous every morning, stumbling through our English readers, social studies and health units. "See Spot run. Run Spot run. See Spot chase Puff. 'Oh, no, Puff, run!'" had been bad enough in first and second grades, but now, in third grade, it grated on my ears to hear my classmates stumble through the simple stories and lessons, grouping painfully to pronounce each word.
"The Fah-arm-er made a long, uh long, uh long row for the bee-eens to, uh gro-ow, uh, grow," drove me to distraction and I always was reading twenty or thirty pages ahead by the time the teacher called on me and then I got into trouble because I didn't know where the class was in the book. This always made me feel dumb and then I got pissed off because I wasn't the dumb one, they were. Our teacher used the Palmer Method to teach us cursive writing which also drove me nuts. I KNEW how to write real writing and hated this tedious practice, drawing endless "O's" across the page, each exactly like the others, tall "k's", long "p's", snaky "S's", "and don't forget to cross your the t's, students, nice even rows, don't go above or below the lines..." This was torture that knew no bounds. My fingers cramped from holding my wrist up high, above the page, in the prescribed "...Palmer arch, nice and high, students, that's good." This is stoo-pid! I thought.
The smells from the cafeteria became stronger as the morning progressed and I salivated accordingly, swallowing to keep from drooling on myself. I watched the clock and thought the minute hand had surely stopped. I knew I could hold my breath for over a minute so I did that, keeping an eye on the big hand, waiting for it to finally click over one space. Yes! Now, it was eleven twenty-nine. Only sixteen more minutes until lunch time, sixteen held breaths. The minutes ticked by even more slowly, then, and I would try to find another way to distract my head and my belly from thoughts of food.
I gazed out the window. Dragonflies darted about abundantly, too far away from me there in my desk to see, but I knew their wings were iridescent green or blue and I knew they would fly and light for a moment only to fly abruptly off again. They were able to hover, also, and I could pass many quiet hours watching them. Everybody called them "Darning needles" and claimed they would sew your eyes shut if you watched them too long but I knew that was just another old wive's tale like Ruby was always telling us, like playing with frogs gives ya warts and black cats are bad luck. The dragonflies were lucky, they didn't have to practice Palmer handwriting and they could eat whenever they wanted.
Finally, the clock ticked over to 11:45; the buzzer went off, another morning had passed. We put our work supplies into our desks and stood in line at the door and after fussing with her jacket and rearranging her papers on her desk, the teacher opened the classroom door and led us down the long hallway to the lunch room. Each class walked together, in orderly rows, and waited to enter the lunch room, the younger classes going first. The High School kids ate after the Grammar School classes were finished and had gone outside to play. Cassandra and I, and most of our friends, brought sack lunches. We walked directly over to our table and began to eat. The hot lunch kids queued up to be served. Oh, how appetizing were the aromas that filled the air.
The cooks were a fat and a skinny woman, both unfailingly jolly who called to each of the students by name. They dished out tall servings of the meal for the day according to the government approved menus. But, oh! they always added some little special something to each dish. Miniature marshmallows appeared in the jello, extra mayonnaise and ketchup were meted out with each serving of oven-baked french fries for dipping, tiny mushrooms peeked out between the canned peas.
Our sandwiches were always the same, thrown together by Cassandra or myself moments before the bus was due to pick us up in front of our house. Fried egg or tuna fish or peanut butter and jelly leaked through the spongy white Wonder bread. ("Makes ya kinda wonder about that bread,” Dad always joked, when we kids pulled the middle out of a slice and balled it up into little gummy wads which we tossed at each other at the dinner table. "Makes ya wonder why they call it bread." We laughed even though I, for one, didn't really understand the joke at all.) An apple or a brown speckled banana completed our entree.
I sat munching, watching the hot lunch kids return from their line. More than anything else in the world at that time I wished I had thirty-five cents every day so I could have a hot lunch. Oddly, most of the kids who ate hot lunch claimed to hate them and said they were terrible. How could food that smelled so could possibly taste bad? But, they made awful jokes about the food and tossed pieces of their lunches at one another when the lunch monitors weren't looking.
"Ick, gross," one girl said, "It's Porcupine Balls again." She rolled her eyes and wiggled her shoulders and pulled a face, saying dramatically, "I'm gonna die if I have to eat another one of these things." She cut one in half with her fork and pushed it across her plate.
"It's the only balls you'll likely ever eat," her girlfriend replied, with a dirty laugh.
"Oh, you filthy thing. Shut your mouth or I'll stick you know whose balls in it."
I didn't understand half the dirty jokes the kids made. I didn't want to. But I sure wanted what they had on their plates. I wanted to say, "I'll take it. I'll eat that," when I saw them scrape their plates into the garbage as they left the lunchroom to go outside for recess. At home I would feel no hesitation. But I was learning to guard and modify my behaviors and to deny my natural inclinations for fear of being teased and ridiculed. I heard:
“Fatty, fatty, two by four,
Couldn't get through
The bathroom door.
So, she did it
On the floor.
Licked it up
Then did some more,”
quite often enough without openly inviting such abuse by begging those girl's table scraps. I did filch scraps out of the garbage can on several occasion, however, which satisfied my curiosity and appetite a bit at the expense of my dignity and upon pain of extreme fear of being caught in the act, garbage in hand, so to speak, or worse, in mouth.
I never saw again or heard of a dish called Porcupine Balls but was able as an adult to create a fair replication of this dish after much experimentation. I serve and eat them to this day with a secret vengeance in my heart against those kids who disdained their cafeteria lunches the smell of which so disturbed my early education.
Porcupine Balls, With A Vengeance.
Cook up a pot of your basic plain white rice and let this cool. Combine it with double this amount of hamburger. Add grated carrots, minced bell pepper and chopped onions, a lot of each, along with enough egg to get it all a bit on the sticky side. Roll this mixture up into balls, big ones. Be generous, we might be feeding hungry kids here. Place these on cookie sheets and brown in a hot oven for about a half an hour. When they are well-browned and beginning to get a bit of a crust, remove from the oven. Use the grease from the balls and some flour to make a nice thick brown gravy, using canned milk for the liquid. Pour the gravy over the balls in a pot on the stove to stay warm. Serve with mashed potatoes, canned pear halves, sweet peas and, for a real nostalgic kick, jell-o with little marshmallows all sprinkled in.
For years I couldn't imagine why this was called Porcupine Balls except to give kids something to snicker over at the table. Finally, it dawned on me that these fancy meatballs kinda look like little porcupines with the rice bristling up out of the meat. Oh, duh!
Sharon shared a seat with me on the long rides to and from school. We always tried to be the first on the bus going home, to get the much coveted back seat which otherwise was monopolized by the teenagers who swaggered and spit and swore, the girls in full long skirts, the boys in tight narrow legged blue jeans. When we could manage to get there first, we had to fight hard to hold our place. Sharon's brother, Chris, in particular, cursed and threatened us and tried to intimidate us into moving. He had a girlfriend who smoked cigarettes and wore way too much makeup. She was flat as a board up top and we called her "Titless" behind her back. One day she showed up on the bus with a full bosom, rising like the prow of a ship, her skinny butt trailing in the wake. This was too much for Sharon who hooted hysterically, "Falsies, she's wearing falsies. Lookit the titless wonder today!"
Chris slapped Sharon full in the face, faster than you could see, snapping her head about clear around and blood immediately spurted from her nose. But, Sharon just kept on laughing like a hyena.
"What nature has forgotten," she intoned like a TV announcer, "Let us supply with cotton," as the blood continued to flow and her brother towered over her, glowering, his fist balled up to strike her again. "Shut up. You just shut your fuckin' mouth."
The bus driver, an old man with a crooked back, leaped out of his seat and grabbed Chris by the arm. "All right now. You sit down and stay sat or you'll be walking to school for the rest of the year," he said, forcibly pushing Chris down by the shoulder into an empty seat. "And you, young lady," he continued, turning on Sharon, "Oh jezus," he said, seeing all the blood and her crooked nose, "Here, use this." He gave her his handkerchief out of his back pocket, a nasty old snot rag, crusty and crumpled from much use. She staunched the flow but continued rolling her eyes and snorting with laughter, blood and snot streaming out from under the handkerchief as the bus labored over the bumpy road towards school.
Chris did get suspended from the bus for a week. Sharon got her nose set and had two black eyes which looked particularly rakish with her black eye patch. Some girls get all the luck! The Titless Wonder returned to her flat-chested self during our travels on the bus but swole up like a bull frog as soon as she could get to the girl's bathroom once we arrived at school which caused Sharon and me to snicker and leer whenever we caught sight of her in the hallways or outside on the playground and, always, on the long bus rides to and from school.
Sharon was absolutely fearless. Her brother terrorized her constantly but she spit in his face and called him really creatively ugly names. What I admired the most was that she never flinched or said Ouch no matter how badly he banged her around. She was tough, pure D tough, and that's all there was to it.
Sharon wore her hair cut short, in a duck tail, and combed it back with Dixie Peach, a style I attempted to emulate with Vaseline. No more piggy-tails for me. I wanted the real thing, a D.A., which stood for duck's ass and which we screamed at the top of our lungs whenever we could get away with it, running like crazy fools through the woods, jumping over fallen logs, brushing through the undergrowth where the other girls would not go because the rose bushes and thistles would scratch their legs.
"I'm a crazy girl," Sharon screamed, "I gotta a duck's ass and you can just kiss my ass and I don't care who tries to kick my ass, I'm crazy, so ya better just get out of my way."
D.A. became our secret code for the apparent absurdities of life. We mouthed the words silently to each other across the classroom or on the bus or at the table when I spent the night at her house, any time someone was bossing us around or telling us we had to be good or be quiet or be something we did not want to be and which we knew our nature never intended us to be and we collapsed helplessly into giggles because we knew. We knew. We knew what no one else could possibly know. We knew we were wild and free inside. We knew no one could ever get in there and change that. We knew.
Sharon had even more kids in her family than we did. Besides herself and Chris, there was a set of twins, a year younger than she, a brother a year younger yet, and three more younger sisters at home, all more-or-less still in diapers. Her mother was a skinny washed out woman with scraggly hair and hardly any teeth. They were from Oklahoma and Sharon had to beat up half the kids in the neighborhood for calling her or her family "Okies". I never heard anyone call her mother anything except "Ma", even her husband, Alvis. Now what the hell kind of a name is that?
Ma had a ragged patch of garden where she grew turnips, beets, potatoes, spinach, squash and anything else she could coax out of that bare cold dirt. She chewed snuff and always had at least one kid on her tit and one on the hip. She was a slapper and all of her kids stayed out of arm range if humanly possible. Ma spent half her life washing diapers which she hung out to dry on lines strung between the trees around their trailer. The other half of the time she was cooking or cleaning up. But, no matter how early she got up or late she stayed up, she never quite got caught up. No wonder she was so skinny. She wore old ragged dresses held together with big safety pins and a pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers she called "mules" that once could have been pink but now were a dark dirty grey. Her hair, what she had of it, was twisted up and held in place with a half a chop stick which she also used to poke slow or unresponsive kids so she was always re-twisting her hair to put it back up in place, a losing cause if ever there was one.
Their trailer was half caved in along the back which was held up by a timber that Alvis had sledgehammered in place. He had thrown a shack of sorts up around the side of the trailer which served as kitchen, living room and the parent's bedroom. The trailer itself was just one room used for a bedroom for all the kids except the smallest baby who slept with Ma. The place smelled of dirty diapers and rotten food and mold and mildew. There were no dressers or closets, all clothes were stacked communally in piles between the beds and the kids walked across them to get around so it was hard to tell where one bed ended and another began. Sharon slept in a top bunk with the second baby but when I spent the night we slept out in the back of a broken down vehicle on blocks in the yard that had the seats ripped out and a mattress of sorts shoved in which almost made a bed and certainly smelled better.
The one night I slept inside with her, we woke up in the middle of the night hearing Alvis and Ma grunting and cursing. At first I thought they were having a fight but soon figured out they were having sex which caused us both to start giggling helplessly "Oh duck's ass, duck's ass," Sharon mumbled into her pillow, a grey thing that looked and smelled like it had never been washed. "You'd think they would figure out by now what's causin' all them babies to come."
There was no bathroom at Sharon's place, just an out-house with two seats. The kids all peed in the yard, without a second thought to it. There was a wash stand set up in the front room, with a sink plumbed into a bucket beneath that got dumped out in the garden. They hauled water in jerry cans and had some sort of pink glop in a jar they used for soap that was the best stuff in the world for getting pine pitch off of your hands.
Alvis was a mechanic, working at a shop down in Incline Village but more often he was busy out in the yard tearing a car down or re-building an engine. He had a little trailer he pulled behind his car that had all of his tools in it and they were well-cared for despite the general disrepair of his home. The yard was filled with junk of every type and description, car parts, old generators, broken washing machines, motors from refrigerators, pieces of boat engines and of chain saws, all stacked up or hanging from the trees. The yard was beaten bare by foot traffic and spotted with oil and grease from many repair jobs.
Sharon's family was what Ruby called white trash, no doubt about it. They fought and hollered a lot, it's true, and they were dirty people and poor as dirt. And Chris was mean and headed for trouble, anyone could see that. But, the rest of the family were pretty nice. Old Ma always smiled when she saw me and invited me to eat and that's about all it takes to be good people in my book. She introduced me to boiled greens which I had never even heard of before.
Old Ma's Boiled Greens
First ya gotta get yrself a heapin' mess a greens. Poke or beet tops or turnip or spinach greens is best. Try ta get 'em young and tender 'cause they're sweeter then for sure. Pick ya a colander fulla them things and then ya gotta wash 'em real good elsewise ya get grit in there and that ain't a bit o' fun. Take them greens and chop 'em up good and then heat up a cast iron skillet or dutch oven and cut'cha up some bacon or fatback if ya got some in there and let it brown up a bit or else get some grease of some sort, a little, and get that nice and hot. Some people like a little bit o' onion chopped up in there for flavor and 'cause onion'll clean yr blood, don'cha know. Put'chur greens down in there and stir 'em round a bit to coat 'em with the fat and then throw ya some water in there, a cup or so, and put a lid on it and let 'er boil. They're done pretty quick when ya smell that good smell and then take 'em off'n the fire and pour on 'em a dose a vinegar shook up with a bit a salt and a bigger bit a sugar. Stir that mess up and eat that with some corn bread and ya couldn't ask for no better.
Ma liked me, I think, because I ate every darn thing she ever did put in front of me including ‘possum she made one night that tasted kinda like chicken and kinda like pork but mostly like the black pepper she spread all over it in a paste while it baked in her dutch oven. Sharon usually had cold corn bread for breakfast or fried mush which was familiar to me but they ate it with molasses which tasted great. Boiled turnips was the one dish I never did quite get the hang of; it had a mean bite to it, so far as I was concerned. Fortunately, turnips were gobbled by the whole clan so my lack of appetite for this was hardly noticed.
After lunch at school, Sharon was the wildest of all the Wild Horses. She whinnied the loudest and ran the fasted and could snort in a way that sounded exactly like a real horse. She was the horse that all the other girls wanted to catch but she ducked and dodged their ropes and she let me be the lucky one that caught her and took a wild ride across the ridgetop above the school. Our legs were always scratched and cut from our romps through the underbrush and as fall deepened into winter, they became blue from the cold. But we ran so hard, we barely felt the cold till we were forced to return to the classroom after lunch hour and then they stung and throbbed from the change back to the overheated atmosphere in the school.
We sat with our arms around each other's waists on the long bus ride home, singing songs from the Hit Parade on the radio. When I got off the bus, I rushed to the house to change clothes so I could run up the hill to Sharon's place. There, we held babies on our laps while we sped through our homework assignments so we would have time to play. Ma often asked us to take the twins with us when we ran outside, "Jus' get 'em out from under my feet so's I cin get supper on," she said. I never could tell one twin from the other. My eyes couldn't catch they slight differing characteristics and it amazed me that Sharon's family knew them without hesitation. It was an eerie feeling to me, never knowing which one I was speaking to and after awhile I just gave up and called them "you two". That made those little girls just laugh and laugh at me.
We let them follow us around as we explored the woods. Sharon showed us how to find soft pine pitch that we could chew like gum. It had a hot, bity, turpintiney taste and stuck in between our teeth but we loved to gather mouth's-full of the stuff and would chew it till our mouths drooled sticky, pitchy spit. We dug into the rotted mat of fallen needles and took turns burying each other. Because they were so small, it was considerably easier to bury either one of the twins but they both wiggled uncontrollably as we piled the dirt and matter over them and it was more work but infinitely more satisfying to bury Sharon or myself. We would hold perfectly still, hardly even breathing, as the burial mound deepened about us. It was a very spooky feeling when, at last, our faces were covered.
Dirt trickled into our nostrils and down into our throats and the weight of the material was slight at first but slowly increased and the sounds of the others at work above and around became muted and remote. Utterly terrifying was when a beetle, caught up in our industrious efforts would suddenly decide it was time to make tracks, causing all of us, the body as well as the buryers to shriek and squeal in shock and delight. Once the burial was complete, a funeral service would be held, "Lord, we give over into your gentle care the body of this your servant, Sharon. Take her unto your bosom, oh Lord, and forgive her all of her earthly sins. We pray today that her immortal soul might rest with You forever and ever. Amen."
At this point, the twins would frequently burst into tears, so serious and solemn were our voices. If it was one of the twins being buried, she would at this point likely burst up out of the mound, screaming, "I'm not really dead, God, I'm not really dead. Don't take me away," causing me and Sharon to roll on the ground in mirth.
We returned to Sharon's place covered in shrouds of dirt and pine needles, pinecones stuck in our clothes and hair. Old Ma said, "You kids brush off and wash up afore you come in here. Don'tcha track all that crap in my house." But she was never surprised to have us come back so filthy and disheveled. We used gallons of the pink goop to clean our hands and faces and even our hair which always somehow seemed to pick up more than a fair share of pine pitch.
Old Ma had done most of her cooking outside in the cook shack or summer kitchen next to the trailer, a stove, counter and a few shelves knocked together with a tin roof of sorts hanging over. As the weather turned cold, her cooking moved indoors. The trailer had a wood-burning heat stove Alvis welded up with a heavy door in front that swung open to receive the odds and ends of wood scraps and cut up chunks of pine he used to keep a hot fire burning. The top of the stove was flat and Ma did all her cooking up there, moving pots and pans around with ease and even frying pancakes and making toast directly on the surface of the stove top which she called a griddle.
She always had a soup pot bubbling at the back of the stove filled with cooking beans or a stew of some kind and a big pot of hot water into which went all the dirty dishes and used utensils. When they were needed again, she fished them out one at a time with a pair of long tongs and wiped them clean, kind of, with a rag. This pot was kept full of water by adding buckets of snow collected from outside around the trailer, "Not from the yard," Ma always said when we were pressed to perform this endless chore, "Get out into the woods where the snow is cleaner," which was a real misnomer as the snow had pine needles and cone parts in it, no matter how careful we were. Sometimes rabbit turds would be floating around in the wash pot. Somehow this never bothered me. After all, the water boiled pretty much all the time and that would get anything clean, wouldn't it? Old Ma fed me a bowl of soup before I left to go home for supper which made me happy. Sharon and I sat close to the stove, playing with the babies, staying out from underfoot while Ma cooked and we daydreamed out loud in one of our favorite games, When I Grow Up.
"I'm gonna live in a log cabin in the woods in Alaska," I said, always. "I will have a whole yard fulla dogs and when it's really cold, I will let them come in the cabin. I'm gonna have six kids, or maybe a dozen."
"Not me," Sharon said, "I'm never gonna have kids, no kids, no way. I'm gonna go and live somewhere warm. I'm gonna have a big house with lots of windows and a bathtub big enough to float in."
"I think I will be a writer. I will write all day and at night we will take turns reading to each other. I will never go to town, except to get the mail," I declared.
"I think I'll be a teacher," Sharon said. "I wouldn't ever scold the kids or make 'em feel stupid. I would help them with their work and make learning FUN!"
Sharon usually walked me halfway home in the deepening winter twilight. It got darker and darker earlier every evening. We cut through the woods, which was much faster than following the road. The woods were gloomy but the trail shone white ahead of us through the inky shadows of the trees crowded so close together. Sharon tagged me from behind and then ran, hollering, "You're it, had a fit, couldn't catch me, idiot." Her footsteps echoed through the hush of the snow-mantled towering pines. I ran as fast as I could to catch her, knowing she would try to hide somewhere so she could jump out and spook me.
Spying her once, crouched in the V where two trees grew together, I walked by as if to pass her, then smacked her hat off of her head. "You're it, stupid shit, can't catch me, so now you're it!" and I sped off the trail and out into the deeply drifted snow. I could hear her laughing and cursing, trying to find her hat so she could chase after me. I stumbled on through the thick bushes, my feet ploughing through the new fallen snow. Realizing I was leaving an unmistakable trail, a mile wide, I zig-zagged to return to the foot-path and poured on the speed, seeking a crook or corner in which to hide. My foot caught a root and down I tumbled, Sharon close at my heels. She came around the bend in the trail and fell right over on top of me, where we lay together gasping for breath and laughing uproariously. After a few minutes, I sat up and she leaned her head in my lap. We were very still, listening to the quiet hush around us, the only sound in the woods was our slowing breaths. I looked down at her smiling face, her hat speckled with snow and squashed haphazardly upon her head. I brushed the snow away from her face and was shocked at the tenderness I felt towards her.
"How come," I asked, "how come is it you always say you're never gonna get married? How come you don't want to have kids. I always wonder."
Sharon pulled a face, scrunching her mouth up like something smelled. "I just don't," she said. "I don't know why. I just don't want the mess and the fuss."
"But," I pursued, "Don't you want to have a husband and a family?"
"No way," she replied. "I would rather die. I seen enough dirty diapers already and no man's ever gonna mess around with me."
We just looked at each other, then, our silence filling the air.
"You know he tried to do it to me once," she said
"Who?" I replied. "Who tried to do what to you?"
"Him! Chris. My retard brother. He tried to do it to me last summer."
"It," she said. "It. IT. You know. The nasty thing. He tried to do the nasty thing to me. Out in the shed. That's why he shot me with the BB gun. Ma came outside and caught him trying to mess around with me and he run off into the woods. She didn't know what was going on but she asked me and I told and she told Pa and Pa beat the crap out of Chris when he come home that night. That's why Chris shot me because he says Ma never woulda known nothing 'cept I ratted him off. He's such an asshole."
"Oh, jezus, Sharon. Gross. You're only eight years old. He's your BROTHER for crying out loud. No wonder ya hate him so much."
"Yeah, well he would stick it in anything that would hold still. He probably does Titless every night. Pa wouldn't even let him back in the house for weeks. He had to sleep out in the car. But, I don't care. Sex is stupid and no man's ever gonna put his mule in my barn, no matter what, and I'll kill anyone who tries, you bet."
After that we didn't play When I Grow Up so much. I was shocked by what she had told me and I didn't know how to talk to her or anybody else about it. This went into the back file along with all the other Stuff That Just Makes No Sense. Sharon was the first girl I ever met that flat declared she wouldn't wed and wouldn't breed and although I understood, frankly, I just couldn't imagine. Despite Dad's drinking and the fights and the continual disruptions and problems between my parents, I still believed that someday things would be better and that meanwhile we would just make the best of things. Family is the most important thing in the world, I knew, because sometimes it is all you have.
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