Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Something About Bambi"

When I was 10, the only thing I wanted more than a bicycle was pierced ears.

I’d been wearing a bra for nearly two years at that point, and I was mortified by the fact that I was the only girl in the third grade to have to wear one. I longed for something grown-up that was also pretty … and normal, unlike my stupid bra.

My mother and I had very different ideas about things like earrings, makeup and even leg-shaving for girls my age. I tried to reason with her about getting my ears pierced, arguing that girls much younger than me had done it. My argument was met with the unimaginative but somehow very effective “jump off a bridge” parental response.

It was around this same time that I got my first call from a boy. I’d been listening to records with my dad in the den when the phone rang. I wasn’t even paying attention; I never got phone calls.

“It’s for you … It’s a BOY,” my dad said shoving the receiver toward me and walking a few feet away into the living room.

“Hello?” I asked.

“This is Clifford Cummings,” the voice said … squeaky yet earnest. Gulp. “Will you go with me?”

Clifford was in my fourth grade class, but had never spoken to me before. I couldn’t fathom why he’d be calling now, much less where in the world he could possibly want me to go with him.

Ice cold but sweating, I got up from the ottoman and set the phone silently back in its cradle.

“What did HE want?” my dad asked.

I shrugged.

When I walked into class the next morning, Clifford Cummings had a textbook propped in front of his face. He wouldn’t look at me for days. He certainly never spoke to me again or called.

My parents wouldn’t buy me a bike, but I was allowed to work and save for one. My parents were both very poor growing up, my dad having been expelled in seventh grade and working until he joined the Navy at 17 during WWII. My mom met him when she was in the Women’s Army Corps, working as a bartender at the Officers Club. They’re very practical people, and my brothers and I faced mowing lawns and cleaning houses and walking dogs instead of an automatic allowance like the other kids had. I finally had enough for the bike I wanted: orange with silver stripes, fast and new. A big-girl bike. I wanted it. I’d earned it, every spoke.

Our neighborhood had a bike trail complete with steep hills only the big kids would brave. The going up wasn’t scary, but the ride down was a real thrill. I only got to experience it twice, because on the third night I owned the bike, it was stolen. Conceding that I shouldn’t have left it unlocked on the front porch overnight, even if it was out of plain sight, I again worked and saved for a replacement. Three months into saving for a new bike, my mom pitched in half. I bought an exact replica of the stolen bike that I then locked up faithfully every night in the backyard.

My desire for pierced ears grew as each of my friends acquired hers. But it was a hopeless desire. Not only did my mother forbid me from getting my ears pierced because of my age, but she also insisted it was “barbaric.”

Each year, I traveled with my father from Alabama to Cinnaminson, New Jersey to visit my grandmother. This was never a family trip, since Mom and Grandmom didn’t get along too well, and my brothers never seemed interested in joining us. But I looked forward to the trip every year. Grandmom doted on me, and I always had a great time exploring Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore with my dad.

In Atlantic City, he’d place bets for me. In Wildwood, I rode carnival rides. In Philadelphia, we saw the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross’s house and ran up the steps of the art museum together like Rocky.

In the car, Dad and I always tried to play “Name That Tune” to pass the time, but because Dad was nearly 50 when I was born, most of his songs had been hits during WWII, and he knew only a few of mine that he’d heard on Solid Gold. It was our favorite television show; I loved the music, and he loved “The Gold Dust Dancers,” as he called them. So went much of our time in the car, humming unfamiliar tunes to each other, then being astonished at each other’s lack of knowledge.

I arrived in New Jersey to a gift of a three-foot-tall doll — the kind with eyes that open and shut. Not only did I hate (and sort of fear) the doll, but I also took it as a personal affront that I would get such a babyish gift. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I definitely wanted to assert my new status in the not-a-little-girl category. My grandmother wasn’t fazed. Having spent more time with boyfriends in Atlantic City than raising her only child, she probably had no idea what children liked, not to mention our seventy-year age difference. She seemed relieved to be able to relate to me in a more grown-up way.

On the second day of our visit, the three of us went shopping at the Cherry Hill Mall. While my dad looked at golf clubs, grandmom and I wandered off.

“So, what would you like to do?” she asked.

I looked at her. “I want to get my ears pierced.”

She hesitated. It was a lot to take that, in the year since she’d last seen me, I had not only given up dolls, but I also wanted my ears pierced.

“I’m the only girl I know who can’t wear earrings.” I stated.

“What does your mother think?” she asked, still walking and window shopping.

“She doesn’t like it, but…”

Next thing I knew, my dad’s mother was shuffling me off to get my first earrings.

My legs dangled from the little black stool in the window of Claire’s Boutique, where I sat surrounded by myriad cheap shiny baubles. A girl not much older than me aimed what looked like a staple gun at my right earlobe. As she put the piercing gun to my ear, her hand shook.

The sound of the gun exploding near my ear made me jump, making the pain worse. I looked for my grandmother, but she was on the other side of the store, looking at floor-to-ceiling costume jewelry. It was too late to back out now. The girl held the piercing gun with two hands against the other ear and again I jumped. But it was done. The throbbing started immediately. I looked in the hand mirror she had given me. Instantly, I felt beautiful.

When we met up again with my dad, my grandmother pulled my hair aside to show him the pretty sparkling studs in my ears.

“Your mom’s not going to be happy about this,” he said, but kind of smiled and led us out to the car.

The pressure of the pillow against my ears kept me up most of that first night. The next morning, I began religiously swabbing my red earlobes with rubbing alcohol several times a day. Each time I looked in the mirror, I thought the little clear stones made me look glamorous. I didn’t care that my ears were swollen and sore, but I couldn’t look at them without thinking about my mom. For the rest of the visit and the drive home, I worked on my dad to put in a good word for me with Mom. He told me he’d do his best. It seemed only logical he’d have to stick up for his own mother on this one, if not his daughter.

My earrings must have shone like twin lighthouse beacons, or maybe she was just using her Psychic Mom powers, but she noticed the earrings even before she could hug me hello. My mom didn’t get mad at us. Instead, she was “disappointed.” This, along with the soul-crushing silent treatment … It was the worst punishment in the world.

She held me at arm’s length by my shoulders, taking in the sight of her only daughter, her baby, now with “barbaric” holes torn in her ears. I may as well have had a plate inserted into my lip. She looked at my dad.

“Iola took her,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it.” He walked past us into the next room.

“Your grandmother let you do this to yourself?”

Mom was shaking.

“I didn’t do it myself. Grandmom took me to the mall to get it done,” I said, as if that made a difference.

“Did your grandmother know that you weren’t allowed to get your ears pierced?”

Staring down at the carpet beneath my sneakers, I nodded my head.

“And she took you anyway.” She reached toward one of my swollen earlobes but recoiled. “Are they supposed to be that red?” Mom asked, the mama bear part kicking in.

“I think they’ll be fine in a few days,” I tried.

I spent the next several days nursing my poor, bloody earlobes, trying desperately to keep them from becoming infected and, worse, completely proving my mother right. She was already treating me as if I had committed murder. But after two weeks of my steadily worsening condition and painful, sleepless nights, I sheepishly went to her for help.

Instead of launching into the expected lecture of the I-told-you-so variety, she hugged me tight for a long time.

Then she got right to business. She examined my swollen earlobes and winced. Despite my best efforts, the gold posts in my ears were glued with dried pus and blood.

Mom swabbed my earlobes with alcohol and tried to pull the posts from my ears. They wouldn’t budge. She tried one, then went back to the other … but no luck. Each time she pulled on an earring, it was excruciating; but I bit my lip and hoped they’d suddenly come loose.

“We need someone with some muscle for this,” Mom said. But my dad was out of town on a business trip, and Mom didn’t trust either of my mean and mischievous brothers with the task.

“I’ll bet Frank Bell is home,” she said. “Let me go call Ann.”

Ann and Frank Bell were our neighbors who were from Boston, just like my mom. Though they hadn’t known each other before becoming neighbors in Alabama, their shared hometown automatically bonded them more than the other neighbors. Mr. Bell was a big, strong man with a kind face. He was someone who always looked old to me, but it was his gray hair, which, to a kid, means old.

My mom got off the phone with Mrs. Bell and told me to go on down there, that Mr. Bell was in his garage and that he’d be happy to help me.

I was in a lot of pain already from my mom’s failed attempts to rid me of my beloved/cursed earrings. I no longer cared about being beautiful; I just wanted the pain to stop.

Despite my often crippling shyness, I marched up the driveway and into the garage to meet my savior, Mr. Bell.

Mr. Bell’s garage was not for cars. It was a workshop for woodworking and it was storage for a canoe and tons of camping gear.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and it took a moment for me to adjust my eyes to the dark interior of the garage. I could make out the large shape of Mr. Bell. I could see his worktable. He had his back to me and didn’t hear me step into the garage. He wasn’t doing woodwork.

What I saw stopped me, froze me mid-step. I wasn’t sure it was real. My hand involuntarily flew to my mouth as I stared ahead at the far wall in front of me.

I could see that it was indeed real. There, against the back wall of the garage was a deer, hung upside down by her stick legs, head hanging lifelessly to one side. Her shiny black eyes were open and staring, but with an empty look I’d never seen in any set of eyes before.

I screamed.

Or maybe I didn’t scream.

I stared in some sort of horrified trance.

Mr. Bell chuckled a little — not because he was mean, but because he couldn’t help himself. He tried to calm me, silently assuring me that it was perfectly natural to have a beautiful dead animal hanging in your garage waiting to be gutted and flayed and cooked and eaten.

I’d completely forgotten about the pain in my ears.

Recognizing my distress, Mr. Bell deliberately placed his large frame between me and the deer, shielding me from the gruesome image.

“I hear you’re having a little trouble with your new earrings,” he said, so calmly.

I began to stutter uncontrollably. Nothing I said made sense, so, in frustration, I just stopped talking. He came over to where my tiny sneakers were frozen to the concrete floor. I remember him being very close to me. It was a comforting feeling, but I could not reconcile the difference between this nice warm man and the one who had obviously just killed this poor, helpless animal.

It didn’t hurt at all when he pinched the back and the stone of the first earring and pulled them apart. Then he did the other. The cool air hitting my raw ears was a wave of relief.

He placed the gooey, crusted earrings in the palm of my hand.

“Thank you,” I said without looking up.

I turned on my heel and ran full speed all the way home, tears streaming behind me.

I never set foot inside the Bells’ house again. The image I had of Frank Bell in that garage never changed because he died of cancer when I was 17. I remember when he died, he was what my mom considered young.

By this time, my ears had been re-pierced without incident. A year earlier, I had even been allowed to start wearing makeup and dating.

Shortly before I graduated from high school, one of the people who lived across the street from me my whole life killed himself. He was a forty-year-old man still living at home. He’d been in and out of mental hospitals most of his life. He lived there with his sisters and mother and brother with Down’s Syndrome. Sometimes a cousin or two. I remember driving home late one night and having to negotiate around an ambulance and several police cars into my driveway. Their lights were flashing, but there were no sirens, and no one was moving with any urgency. Every light in the house was on … he had hanged himself with a belt in his bedroom.

A few days later, I noticed a bicycle out by the trash at the house across from us. I crossed the street to examine the bike and realized that this now rusted and cobwebbed big-girl’s bike was, indeed, the orange with silver stripes bike that had been stolen from me almost eight years before.

Years later, my brother admitted that he sometimes used to see our neighbor, a fully grown man, riding a little girl’s bike down the street in the middle of the night.

© 2010 Sandee Curry

© 2011 Wyatt Doyle