Today is my brother’s birthday, and I am 616 miles away from him. I wanted to share some of my fondest memories of us growing up. We were a non-yelling, quiet family, so no one really talked unless it was necessary. I was an odd little girl who had trouble playing normal-kid games; I was alone a lot, because my parents and much-older brothers had work to do. I preferred finding blueberries, climbing trees, and making up stories about the fringe of woods at the edge of our four acres. (I dared not go deep into the woods).
We moved from our large-yarded house around 1987, into a “nicer” suburban house with a postage stamp yard. It was closer to the bait shop that my father had bought using pennies saved from 25 years of working at Kroger and doing taxidermy on the side. The house had two upstairs bedrooms connected with a crawl-space,which was SO COOL, and I looked forward to being connected to my brother’s room. But Russ never really lived in that room, because he was grown and gone by then.
I just wanted to tell you, Russ, thank you for listening to me and valuing my opinion, even though I was so much younger than you. I love you.
My little birdies cheep so soft that no one else can hear them. They live in a box under my dresser, and when I get them out sometimes there are four but today there are five. I am holding them so carefully so nothing can hurt them while I am checking on them. Rusty comes in and sees me sitting on the carpet by my dresser so he knows what I am doing and he grabs my hands and claps them together hard and says “ you smooshed them!” But I said “Those are the ROBOT birdies you squooshed, not the real ones!” and we laugh.
I was bouncing on Darren’s bed because it is cooler down there in his room and he isn’t home much since he got old enough to drive. But then he comes in and yells at me! But he isn’t really mad I don’t think and then Russ comes in and I scream “SHARK!” I am so excited because it WORKS ! Keith gets on the boat with me and rows the boat and PROTECTS me while Rusty swims on the carpet and makes “JAWS” sounds and I scream and I am so happy because I am scared but it is the all-fake kind of scared. Rusty don’t wanna be the shark but somebody’s gotta be him.
I picked blueberries for mama to put in the pancakes. I only ate three. The small bushes down by the playhouse had a handful of ripe ones and a bunch of purply ones. They are beautiful and tiny. You have to check them every day so the birds don’t get them. The one behind the prickly cedar had only a few ripe ones, but my favorite big bush up by the road had a bunch. I like the woods so much better than helping mama in the garden, even if she lets me play with the hosepipe. The okra and tomato plants itch me and the sun cooks me redder than dirt. The blueberry bushes like the shade and so do I.
Daddy took me fishing today. I was good at keeping quiet so the the fish wouldn’t hear us. I poked the hook through the worm’s guts all by myself. We ate Vienna Sausages out of the can and saltine crackers and drank Grapico. We fished all day and I never wanted to leave. I caught a golden perch and I was sad about how little it was but daddy told me how rare golden perches are. When we were speeding back I stuck my hand out of the boat and the water felt like a sharp edge. The wind was so fast it pulled my eyelids back and the water felt like hail and I had to curl up and put my head on daddy’s knee and I was safe then.
My brother can make anything. I got to stand in his room and watch Russ finish the tiny skeleton model, surrounded by little square bottles of shiny paint. He used that one-haired brush to paint eyes on the green snake coming out of that skeleton’s eye socket. I know I get to stay longer if I don’t say anything so I just smelled the paint and glue and listened to his Thomas Dolby tape and I love Europa and the Pirate Twins and I was so happy I felt like crying.The song is sad though and Thomas Dolby keeps saying “we’ll be the Pirate Twins again” over and over but they never are and the song ends that way.
I want a cat. Most of the books I make are about cats. I found an old one where I drew the cat marrying a DOG. Can you imagine?? In the next one the girlcat marries boycat and has a bunch of kittens. Last week I went to my friend’s house and laid down on the ground next to the kittens drinking from their mama, and she looked bored but patient and kind of sleepy, even when they pricked her soft parts with their little teeth and claws. When they were done eating, the mama cat let me touch them. They crawled all over me, and I felt their tiny claws prick my skin just enough to itch. I put my nose in their fuzzy fur and breathed their smell. I let them tangle in my hair even. It made me feel warm and sleepy like the mama cat. I want a cat but no one else in my family likes them.
There was a wild kitten on the playground but we didn’t see it until it was time to come in. Mrs. Wilkinson said I could stay out longer so I could rescue the kitten. But she let this kid Billy stay out too. We chased the kitten and got closer and then Billy got too close with his big shoe and all then all I could see was the soft, shiny pink of its skull-skin, its fur was torn off and smeared into the ground. After I threw up I couldn’t feel it anymore but I could still see it.
The deer was already hanging up by its back feet when me and mama got back from church. Daddy was about to skin it. Its eyes were cloudy, its fur kinda crumpled, its nose dried out. I thought about how different it would look once the skin was on the smooth fiberglass form, the glass eyes perfectly in place, mascara on its eyelashes, the fur combed, the nose painted a shiny black. It would be beautiful.
I wanted to write a story about what I saw but I am still shaky so I will just write in my journal so no one will see it. I was walking in the woods like usual but I went too far. I wasn’t lost exactly. There were weird soft noises, and when I looked up there were all these big dark shapes in the branches hanging like some weird fruit and they were monkeys. So many, dozens or hundreds, and they smelled like dead things. I felt really crazy because I know there are no monkeys in Georgia. I got dizzy. Monkeys??? I moved closer to them and they suddenly turned into big black buzzards with naked heads. Then I saw the pile of deer bones and flies. This is where daddy brings taxidermy leftovers. I felt a little better. But I was still smooshing down the fear that things would change into other things.
One day when I had to go to school anyway even though I was sick, I wrote a sign to pin to my shirt that said “I don’t feel good today, please do not ask me things.” Mama thought it was funny and cute and she loves me but just doesn’t get it. I just want to go to my treehouse and read. At least Rusty understands what it is like when everybody is always trying to get the answers off you. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy.
I don’t know where he got this carcass of a jeep but Russ has almost got this thing running after only a month of summer. The windows and the top are down but it still looks like a tank. The paint job will have to come later, but the Commando is almost ready to command. Russ is buried somewhere in the engine and I just got him more sweet tea and my job now is to sit sweating in the driver’s seat in case he needs me to turn something on or get something. I sit smelling the cracked old leather seats and gasoline, waiting for instructions. Then all of a sudden he is scooting me over getting in and he cranks it up for real and it is RUNNING. We drive all the way down the driveway and I can feel mama worrying by the window only a little and we turn the radio up louder than the wind and the Cars on the radio are singing “You might think I’m crazy, to hang around with you, or maybe you think I’m lucky, to have something to do” and we both sing ALL THE WORDS even louder than the Cars and the wind, going faster all the way to the end of the road to the paperbox, the wind flying in our hair.
Bored Bored Bored. I sold a fishing license to Dale Murphy and cocolas to all his loud little boys today, but I didn’t know he was anybody special until daddy told me. So I guess I am a little famous now. After Dale Murphy left the store there was hardly anybody coming in. It’s just too hot to do anything this time of year, so the fish get sleepy and go way low down in the water where it is cool. Business will pick up when deer season starts, right on my birthday of course, and daddy will be in the taxidermy shop all the time. I wanted to go over to the baitshop and talk to Russ but I had to wrap up before closing. I faced the cigarettes, candy, crackers and Spam and stuff up to the front of the shelves, then filled the drinkboxes. I was too embarrassed to touch the personal care items so I started the chore I hated most; mopping. I saved the men’s room for last, hoping it would be closing time before I got to it. Why is the men’s room so much more disgusting than the women’s?
I hate fifth grade. I like my nice new room but I liked my old room too and I don’t understand why we had to move across town when daddy retired from Kroger and bought the store. Why couldn’t we just drive the extra way instead of switching schools? I told the teacher I am supposed to be in the highest reading group. But it doesn’t matter, because my old school had a different reading book. And I know literally NO ONE… I have no friends. I miss Russ and I am trying not to be jealous of Tonya. I am listening to my little purple boombox that I saved up for, but I feel a little ashamed because I think daddy paid me for more hours than I actually worked, and when it is slow I mostly just sit there. At least when it isn’t busy I can go to the baitshop to talk to Russ. I want to show him my new cartoons today. I want to be the next Gary Larson and I hope the thinks they are funny. Ugh, this Rod Stewart song is old, why is it on? “Oh Maggie I couldn’t have tried…any more…”
September 19, 1988
My friends came over for a sleepover and we had fun but the WEIRDEST THING EVER just happened. Holly had given me an Ouija Board! We waited until it was really late so my mom would be in bed and wouldn’t worry. Jennifer wouldn’t play. She sat there in the papasan chair, holding onto the Bible and praying for us. Thank GOD.
So anyway we were figuring out the Ouija board and me and Christy had our fingers just barely touching it not even really touching it, like the directions said. And it started moving ON ITS OWN. It started to spell out a name. It moved all by itself, seriously, and it went right to O. I swear I wasn’t touching it. But then, we could feel something cold in the room with us. It was COLD. And we all got really scared . We all were too scared to scream and it was moving towards the next letter but the AIR CONDITIONER SOUND broke the spell.
WHAT HAPPENED??? I knew we all had to be objective. So I handed out pencils and paper and made everyone write their own account of it before we talked about it. (insert original account from notebook here)
EVERYBODY WROTE THE SAME THING. We all felt the cold thing. And if it was really cold, then why did the air conditioner kick on??? That doesn’t make logical sense, right?
I am so freaked out I don’t know if I will ever sleep.
At school they are making us listen to all this news about the war stuff in Iraq and it is so boring. I just want to go home and work on my novel. I am up to 300 pages now. I guess it is weird for a 9th grader to write novels but that’s me, Weird Shalay. Yep. I have friends now at least and I try not to talk about my novel too much with them because no normal 9th graders write novels. I hoped that Russ would want to hear about it though. So after school business was pretty dead and I went over to the baitshop to talk to him while he was fixing reels and listening to the radio. Not music anymore though just a bunch of blathering about politics. The only music part was that opening part to Talking Heads “Take me to the River”. I wished they would play the rest of the song instead of just the first few seconds of it over and over.
“ It’s Rush Limbaugh, the music is perfect for him, see, it sounds like this turtle plodding along, funny and slow and reliable. He says it like it is. He makes so much sense! Everything makes so much more sense to me now.“ said my brother.
“Ok!” I said, trying to listen, but my brain just can’t take all that boring politics; I had to leave.
I gave Russ a little hug and went back into the store where I had my novel manuscript stashed under the counter.
Once in a Lifetime
By Shalay for Russ
are we comfortably numb
singing the practical song?
are you Tom Sawyer?
or a brick in the wall?
Am I a spirit in the material world,
Or am I a material girl?
We were moving in stereo
Then they blinded me with science,
and I ran
Now one of our submarines is missing.
There is radio silence on the airwaves.
You might think I am crazy
This is not a road to nowhere.
Take me to the river,
Switch off the mind and let the heart decide
Water flowing underground
Once in a lifetime