The bullet

 

Bullet

“Dodged” a bullet. John Spade

I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.

So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.

To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.

The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .

Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.

Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.

Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.

I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . . 

“Mom! What if something has happened to  . . . “

She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.

And I know, I know why.

Mom’s afraid.

Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water. 

“Thank God.” 

She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor spaceand goes to open the front door.

I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.

Someone is with her.

They come in.

Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”

Ab, standing partly behind  Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing. 

Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”

I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—

—BANG—

—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—

a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—

baby screams—

I run the few steps back to the living room.

There’s a funny smell, something smoky.

Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air. 

Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.

HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”

And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.

As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.

*******

After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.

The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.

I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.

I really wonder about Ab.

All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…

I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.

But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.

I did.

The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …

The power remains, if you know where to look.

 

Roadside treasure

Spock & Kirk

Star Trek Monthly Magazine Poster Book (cropped). Joe HauptCC BY-SA

The following is a narrative/memoir written several times with students in grades 3-5. I wrote a bare-bones version in front of students, then revised to model the vast difference of “showing, not telling” by adding detail and dialogue. “I can see it all happening!” the kids always exclaim, as the narrative comes to life. Yesterday’s eclipse brought this piece back to mind – the fascination with space, the many hours I spent watching and playing Star Trek when I was the age of these students. During the writing process, the kids ask countless questions. My favorite moment is when they realize what the story is really about.

I shake the device in my hand before I flip the lid and press the button to speak. “Do you read me, Spock?”

Nothing, not even static.

I pull the antenna out as far as it will go. I bang on the device a couple of times with my fist. I shout into it: “COME IN, SPOCK!”

My sister pokes her face from around the corner of our house. “This really ain’t logical!” she calls. She’s not even holding the device up to her mouth.

I sigh.

My sister is eight, I am ten, and we are tired of playing Star Trek. The batteries in the communicators we got for Christmas have quit working, and it’s no fun for Captain Kirk (me) and Mr. Spock (my sister) to keep yelling messages to each other across the yard, which has just one decent tree. There’s only so many pretend worlds we can explore when it all looks the same, with nowhere to hide from alien life forms.

My sister meets me at the street in front of the house. We leave our useless communicators behind in the grass and sit down on the curb as ourselves, not Kirk and Spock anymore.

“Let’s walk to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee,” says my sister. She likes the straws with the spoon on the end. She plays with them more than she drinks her Slurpee.

“I’m broke. I spent my last fifty cents on cinnamon Now-and-Laters and green apple bubble gum day before yesterday and it’s all gone already.” Our dad can’t stand green apple bubble gum. He says it stinks but I think it’s delicious, even though it turns my teeth and tongue green. “Do you have any money?”

“Nah, I thought you did,” says my sister, kicking at the grit beside the curb.

“Not anymore.”  I wish I had some green apple gum right now. I stretch my legs, which are getting long, out into the road. If a car comes, which isn’t all that often in our neighborhood, my sister and I will pull our legs up to our chests until it goes by.

I look down at the edge of the curb where it meets the street, at the little loose rocks lying there. I see a stubby twig and pick it up to write my name in the dust when I notice tiny chunks of pale blue-green glass. I wonder where these came from. Someone must have thrown a Coke bottle out of a car and shattered it.  I push the pieces around with the twig, inspecting them – they don’t look sharp. Time and weather, maybe, have smoothed away the roughest edges.

“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” asks my sister.

“I don’t know.” I pick up a bumpy chunk of the glass and roll it around in my hand; it sparkles in the sunlight. “Maybe I would have a horse and a big house. Maybe I would travel all over the world and be famous. What would you do?”

“I’d give some to poor people for their kids to have toys and bikes and then I would get me a bunch of dogs. What is that?”

I show her the bit of glass in my hand. I smile: “It’s an aquamarine. March’s birthstone. If you were born in March I would give it to you but since you weren’t, I will sell it for thousands of dollars.”

“Hey!” My sister is half amused and half irritated. “Look here—I got my own aquamarine!” She plucks up another bit from the curbside dust.

Suddenly we’re both on a wild treasure hunt, crawling along the curb so fast that we’re scraping our knees. We find bits of brown glass; we say it’s topaz. Green bits are emeralds, my birthstone. The clear ones are diamonds, of course. We can’t find any sapphires, my sister’s birthstone. We forget that this is trash, just pieces of bottles tossed out because someone else didn’t have the manners to put them in a trashcan. In no time we have amassed enough jewels for a princess, maybe two.

The sun shines warm on our backs and a couple of cars go by, slowing down, almost stopping, as they pass. Maybe the drivers are nervous about two girls crawling so close to the street or maybe they’re just trying to figure out what we are doing there in the dirt, but the quartz in the pavement winks at us, glinting like gold, and I know my sister and I are rich beyond compare. We are not afraid to pick our jewels out of the dirt, because dirt is just part of the world, and right now, we own the world.

Broken glass

Broken glass, curbside grass. Orin ZebestCC BY

slice-of-life_individual

Laughing Buddha

Hotei

Hotei Buddha. Shanna RileyCC BY-SA

“Come see what your aunt brought you!” Mom calls. 

My aunt has given me some pretty neat gifts: A shirt with iron-on letters that say Bookworm and a Partridge Family album. She’s a fun person, sometimes, like when she records us singing Olivia Newton-John songs on her tape recorder and says we sound professional, or lets me try on her wigs.

I can hardly wait to see what she’s brought this time. I fly down the hall from my bedroom to the living room.

My aunt is smiling wide. She hands me something wrapped in brown paper, saying: “Be careful -it’s breakable.”

I unroll the wrapping, pull out the breakable thing.

It’s a statue. A little bald man with a big belly and no shirt, wearing only a skirt, with his hands up in the air. He is laughing – at me, I think, because I don’t know what in the heck he is.

He’s also solid pink. A little darker than Pepto-Bismol.

I am confused. 

“I made him in ceramics class,” my aunt says, looking pleased with herself. 

Every grown-up female I know is making ceramics or macrame or decoupage. But I’ve never seen anything like this fat little pink man.

“What is he?” I ask, feeling disgusted, while he laughs at me silently. 

I think about dropping him.

My mother glares at me.

“He’s Hotei. If you rub his belly, he’ll bring you good luck,” says my aunt.

I want to say he needs it for himself, but my mother speaks up:

“Look at what’s underneath.”

I turn Hotei head down. Under the base on which he stands is an inscription:

Made for Fran with love. Aunt E.

I look up at my aunt and see the earnestness in her eyes.

She never married, never had children of her own. When I went to high school, she attended my plays, convinced that I’d make it on the stage in New York City. She directed my wedding, bought dozens of outfits for my first child. When I started trying to write short stories, she asked to read my work.

“You should send this to magazines!” she said, genuine excitement in her voice. “You could be published!”

She didn’t live to see my second child.

Hotei sat on my bedroom shelf for many years, and yes, I rubbed his belly. Some days more than others.

But I didn’t need him for good fortune, not really.

I had my aunt.

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A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away

Galaxie

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is. – Yoda

A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away . . .

A little girl clutches Mama Bear and Papa Bear. Baby Bear has accidentally been flushed down the toilet.  Clad in a mod red pantsuit instead of a long white dress, and with hair too short for cinnamon buns on the sides of her head, the little girl is nevertheless a princess of sorts, if not a rebel. Yet.

“Stand right there and smile,” says the little girl’s grandmother, who snaps a picture. The little girl really cannot not see the camera, as the sun is in her eyes. She smiles anyway.

Behind her stands the Galaxie  – a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 that the little girl’s Granddaddy bought, used, for her Grandma. The exterior of the car is red. The interior is red, the fabric of the seats trimmed with silver cord.  The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air conditioning. In the summer its windows must stay rolled down if the people inside are to survive. Once it lost a hubcap and the girl’s Granddaddy had to run after it in the city streets.

Yet the Galaxie represents power, things far beyond the little girl. Ford Motor Company named it for the Space Race before the success of the United States over the Soviet Union, which came to pass in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The little girl has no memory of this event but likes watching Star Trek with her dad: “Beam me up, Scotty.” She sings The Jetsons theme song:  “His boy, Elroy . . . .” She loves the Jetsons’ dog, Astro. Space gets up close and personal in March of 1970, around the time this picture is taken. A total eclipse occurs in the southeastern United States. The little girl’s family and all the neighbors run out of their apartments in an excited frenzy to watch it. A hush, a stillness, falls over them as the bright day goes as dark as night. The sun disappears,  becoming a mere halo around the huge, black moon. 

“Don’t stare at it,” says Grandma, drawing the little girl close. “It will hurt your eyes.”

The little girl stares anyway, because it is so strange to see the sun go dark.

The world was changing fast. So was my universe. In the year following the eclipse, my grandfather retired. He’d been a shipbuilder since World War II. “We turned out ships in three months in during the war,” I recall him saying, “when it used to take a year.” The war had been over for twenty-five years and it was time to go home; my grandparents packed everything, loaded the Galaxie, and returned to the remote outskirts of Aurora, North Carolina – a tiny town named after the Roman goddess of the dawn. I thought at first it was named for Sleeping Beauty.

My summer voyages began. There on the old dirt roads where my dad ran and played as a child, I learned how to drive with that Galaxie. It was, after all, more indestructible than the Death Star. It was still running after the birth of my first child. My grandparents finally gave it away to the man who hauled trash off for them.

It’s probably running still, somewhere.

Which is more than can be said of our spacecraft.

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