It is quite simple for us to recognize the incidentals that hold us back in life, but difficult to determine if we are holding someone else back. That is unless they tell us.
“I wish you were never born,” Louise, my sister, screamed when she tripped over the box of spools I had been playing with on the floor in Ms. Susie’s kitchen.
She caught her footing, but the spools spilled and began to roll across the floor in every direction. She stepped on one, slid and fell. She landed on her rump, but it was as loud as thunder and shook the china in the cabinet against the wall. I looked at her, expecting her to cry out in pain. I wanted to laugh, but I held it in much like she did her tears. She looked at me with disgust and that’s when she said it.
I was only five at the time, too young to take it literally. After all, she was my big sister, twice my age, and we were supposed to hate each other. Weren’t we? It still hurt.
Not the kind of pain she had shrugged off, getting back up to her feet and flouncing out of the room in anger. It was a volatile injury, the kind you never expect, the kind that makes your chest ache. Not the pain that comes quickly after you’ve stepped on an angry bee while walking barefoot in the clover or tapped your thumb with a hammer when banging a nail into a board to make a ladder on the side of a tree, but still the kind that takes your breath away.
Funny how words can hurt just as much as a bee sting or a sore thumb swelling. And I would never forget her words for as long as I live.
Ms. Susie was a widow. Her husband had died long before I was even born, and he was now just a black and white photograph on the wall above her mantel. She was also a seamstress and our babysitter from time to time. She kept a shoe box of empty spools because they made nice blocks which she said kids liked to play with. They sure kept me entertained, despite the fact that they could only be stacked in one direction – up and down on their flat sides – but that didn’t stop me from trying to build elaborate archways with them.
I would even peel the labels off their flat ends in hopes that some of the adhesive may still be sticky enough for the spools to stick together. At five, I didn’t know what Greek columns were but Ms. Susie said I was a master at building them. If I hadn’t already done it myself, my sister often came along and gave my columns of spools a kick and sent them flying across the room. I think it was because she was just jealous because Ms. Susie never said Louise was good at anything.
Pretending to be a giant stepping on a wall of spools often sent them spinning under the furniture or into corners of the room where the spools were not always found. Ms. Susie said not to worry about the lost ones; she’d find them later when she was sweeping. Or as long as Ms. Susie could sew there would always be more empty spools to fill the shoe box and to fill my imagination with hours of fun.
I never counted them, but the larger thicker spools – my favorites and the best for starting a foundation – were often hard to come by. There were odd skinny spools or very tiny black ones that I just didn’t know what to do with because there weren’t enough of them to use cohesively. I wanted them to get lost, but since I rarely used them and they remained unattended in the shoe box, they became more abundant each time I had to stay with Ms. Susie.
That box of mix matched spools was a lot like my Kindergarten class that autumn. Like spools, children come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And if you peel away their labels, they’re usually sticky underneath. For what it’s worth, they can be stacked but only in certain directions. And the majority of them were fun to play with. Sure, there were kids I wish would have gotten lost, but they didn’t go missing as frequently as spools did – even during a game of hide-and-seek. And though spools couldn’t talk, when you tripped over kids during play, even by accident, like my sister they often said bad things.
“Faggot! Watch where you are going!”
I didn’t know what a faggot was, but it couldn’t be something good even though I got called it a lot at school. Like the little black ones I disliked in that box of spools, I’d become the odd one that no one wanted to play with. I didn’t know what a girlfriend was either, but intuition – if a five year old had any – told me if I had one, the other kids might respect me and stop calling me names.
Her name was Jill, and she had long braided pig tails on each side of her head which the other boys used as riding reigns if they could get their hands on them while chasing Jill around the playground. All the boys were pursuing her, but for some reason she chose me.
Having a girlfriend in Kindergarten didn’t require much. We occasionally held hands when no one was looking. We once kissed in the bushes, a big ordeal that took careful planning so that no one would see us. Tall shrubs grew along the side of the school building, with just enough space for small children to be able to run between the shrubs and the wall without being seen. We each looked over our shoulders, and satisfied that no one was looking, our heads came close together and we gave each other a chicken peck right on the lips.
I soon became the third wheel thanks to Jill’s best friend, a girl named Nicole who was a year older than all of us because she’d started school late. Nicole was deaf. No one made fun of her, despite the large plastic hearing aid she had in one ear or the slurred and lazy speech of hers that you couldn’t understand most of the time.
“Nicole! Nicole! Can you hear me?” someone would yell across the lunch room table.
When they finally had her attention, she’d nod and then they’d say, “Okay!” and look away, not really needing to tell her anything in particular. It was sad, but the class saw it as just a regular test to make sure her hearing aid was working properly.
Nicole was jealous and wanted Jill’s attention all to herself, so I lost my first girlfriend almost as quickly as I’d found her thanks to a heavy shove from Nicole. No hearts were broken. No tears were shed. I just wandered off, satisfied with not having to play house anymore.
Just because I’d had my first playground kiss, I wasn’t exempt from the taunts of other boys. They still called me names. They still made fun of the way I talked – my voice was higher pitched than theirs and I had a horrible stutter. They still made fun of the way I walked – my feet pointed to the sides instead of pointing straight. I wondered if a plastic hearing device in my ear would make things better or worse. I knew I was different from the other boys. I didn’t mind a good game of kick ball or dodge ball, but I much preferred playing with the girls on the swings or jungle gym rather than getting all hot and sweaty in a game of chase with the boys.
It wasn’t just recess that became the bane of my ridicule. The restroom in the back of our classroom presented a problem. At that age, I guess I wasn’t the only one who had issues with relief. There were frequently brown streak marks on the wall, or the teacher would be asked to assist someone.
My problem was that I liked to remove all of my clothing when I had to sit down. I’d hang my jeans and my tee shirt on the door knob and kick off my shoes before sitting down on the toilet. But with a line of kids outside the bathroom waiting on you to finish, my comfort behind the closed door couldn’t take precedence.
This was the same reason why I once didn’t dare ask to use the restroom outside of our normal break, despite the fact that I wasn’t able to go when expected to. When we were seated at our desks – large round tables where eight of us sat – I squirmed and held it for as long as I could. Too afraid to ask the teacher for permission to go out of turn, I wet myself right there at the table!
My jeans soaked up the urine that puddled in my chair underneath me, but even it became too saturated and I began to overflow onto the floor. To me, the sound of those drops of warm water hitting the floor were as loud as spools dropping across Ms. Susie’s kitchen floor, but only I could hear them.
I stood up and retrieved a few tissues from the box on the teacher’s desk and soaked up as much as a facial tissue could hold, unbeknownst to anyone. It seemed as though no one was watching. Maybe they were and they just allowed me to suffer my humiliation in silence while I crouched under the table and attempted to make the puddles go away. Recess was only fifteen minutes away and I knew that if I ran and played like never before, my jeans would dry quickly.
A week earlier a black boy in our class named Scotty had peed his pants just as I had, and the rest of the class had very publicly taken notice. The teacher retrieved an extra pair of jeans for Scotty from the principal’s office, but they were girl jeans with a pink heart on the back pocket. That pink heart patch would be the demise of any popularity Scotty hoped to have over the next eight years. Although they had been the only extra pair of pants available, I was thankful that I had managed to conceal my bladder problem. And my little pants were completely dry by the end of the day. Incidentally, I would still suffer from spools of laughter and ridicule in the years to come.
Wendy, my oldest sister, was nicer than Louise. She was in high school so she was more mature. Wrapped in her Panama Jack beach towel and me in my He-Man, she took me swimming at Okeena Public Pool each summer. I never learned to swim but I loved to float in the water with a diving mask on so I could look under the water and watch the swimmers in the deep end.
One day I found Wendy in the garage with her bathing suit on. It wasn’t summer yet so I knew we were not about to go swimming. She was swinging on one of the round poles in the middle of the garage that acted as support to keep the roof up. She was looking across the garage as if performing to an audience, but other than Daddy’s lawn mower no one was there. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper was playing on the boom box which she had set up on Daddy’s work bench.
“Wha-wha-wha’cha doing, Wendy?”
“Auditions for what?”
“For a job.”
“A j-j-job for what?”
On the outskirts of town, Beedie’s Truck Stop had a Gentlemen’s Club next door to it. Wendy said it was an elite club where she could make good money. They had an opening in the show and she was determined to get the position.
“Let me try! Let me try!”
Swinging around the pole looked fun. Wendy changed the music to “99 Red Balloons,” and stepped out of the way for me to have a turn. I swung around and around, holding onto the pole with one hand and extending my body out as far as I could. Wendy clapped and laughed. I turned the other way and wrapped my leg around the pole, mimicking what she had down, and then twirled around the pole again smiling to the imaginary crowd and fluttering my eyes.
“You’re really good at that,” she cheered.
“May-may-maybe I can get a job at the Gentlemen’s Club some day,” I said.
“Nah, you don’t want to work there.”
“There’s no boys in the show.”
“I-I-I will just have to be the first then,” I said with a big grin and my hands on my hips.
Wendy smiled and gave the hair on the top of my head a ruffle.
Wendy didn’t get the position she wanted, but she did get offered a job at the Gentlemen’s Club which she accepted because she thought it might be a good opportunity to move up in the place. Her official title was “pole washer.” Apparently, after each girl danced, someone had to come out and clean the pole they used for dancing. Wendy’s official uniform was a white tee shirt and her bikini bottom, and a pair of six inch heels.
“Slut!” Louise called out the door when Wendy would leave for work.
“Louise, don’t call your sister names. Your Dad and I ain’t proud of it, but at least she’s working,” Momma said.
The truth was that Momma was somewhat glad that Wendy had started work at the Gentlemen’s Club. Apparently, Daddy liked to stop in the club from time to time for a beer after work. Momma knew Daddy wouldn’t stop there no more since his eldest daughter was working there, or at least that’s what I overheard her telling Aunt Sadie on the phone one day. I didn’t understand why we all didn’t go see Wendy’s show, even if she was just the pole washer, but I wouldn’t dare ask for fear that Louise would call me a slut for wanting to go.
One day Wendy was sent to pick me up from Kindergarten. We lived less than a mile from the school – within walking distance – but Mom always came to get me even if we just walked home. I was surprised to see Wendy because the high school bus didn’t usually drop her off this early.
“I’m done with school,” Wendy said when I asked.
“Did you graduate early?”
“No, I decided I’m not going back. Don’t you get any ideas. You stay in school and finish. Don’t be like your big sister.”
Walking home we ran into Jason McGuire, one of the boys who lived nearby and rode his bike around the neighborhood. I didn’t like Jason. He had long black hair just down to his shoulders. Daddy said boys with long hair were either sissies or listened to heavy metal rock music which meant they were usually up to no good.
Jason also had a habit of spitting through his teeth so it always made this squirting noise when the spittle came flying out of his mouth, the same sound a water gun makes when you pull its trigger. Sometimes he missed and the spit would fall on his chin. He’d wipe it with the back of his hand onto the leg of his jeans. Momma said you should always wipe your mouth with a napkin to show you had good manners. She also said spitting was a dirty habit. Since Jason failed at all of those things, I knew he was nothing but trouble.
“Hey Wendy, how much is ole Beedie paying ya to wash his pole?” Jason yelled out with a cat call whistle.
“Shut up, Jason!” Wendy said.
“I got a pole you can wash,” Jason said, grabbing the crotch of his jeans and giving it a shake. Then, he turned on his bike and peddled away, letting out a screechy laugh that reminded me of Miss Gulch from the Wizard of Oz when she took Toto away.
“Faggot!” I yelled out, but he was too far away to hear me.
“Jimme Lynn! Where did you learn that word?” Wendy said.
“Kindergarten,” I said.
She laughed and gently rubbed the back of my head.
A year later when I passed to be in the first grade, I was the only boy in my class who was an uncle. Wendy got pregnant with Jason’s baby. They moved in together into the trailer park behind Hank’s Country Kitchen. Wendy had to give up her job at Beedie’s when her belly started getting big. I wanted to ask why she didn’t just wash Jason’s pole like he had offered, but Momma said it was good for women to stay at home and raise their babies.
And that’s just what Wendy did.