Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Wesley-Chapter Four

When school started up again I was officially in first grade.  No more of this wimpy half-day of class for me.  I got to play on the big playground and stay at school all day.  After Mama passed away it was really all that I had to look forward to.  (And yeah, I ended a sentence with a preposition.  I'm a rebel like that.)  It wasn't like I really played with any of the other kids.  I pretty much continued to keep to myself, and the events of the summer hadn't exactly helped with that.

Along with Mama passing away and fighting with Shawn, I managed to slip in the bathtub a few weeks before school had started back up again.  This left me with an abscessed front baby tooth that decided to turn a lovely shade of brown.  I guess it was the universe's version of payback for knocking out Shawn's front tooth.  Either way, it made me even more popular than I was before.  I was still the "Cootie Girl" but now I was "Rotten Tooth" on top of it.

Since it was a new year of school, I thought that I would be happier because I'd be getting a new teacher, but this one was just as bad as the first one.  Her name was Miss Miller and she had a terrible tight '80s perm that looked like an afro and wore so much makeup that her eyelashes scared me because they looked like spiders.  She introduced us to the fun and exciting world of discipline and had a row of pockets up at the front of the class containing colored cards.  If you were "Good" you got a Green Card, if you were "Bad" you got a Red Card and if you were "Tolerable" you got a Yellow Card.  I was pretty much Yellow most of the time because she really didn't like me very much.  I know that sounds paranoid, but when someone is always glaring at you and sighing when they have to acknowledge your presence, it makes their feelings about you somewhat clear.  This card system that she had also encouraged kids to narc on other kids to get to the Green level. 

In addition to Miss Miller's value system, the school itself also had a system that it used for students first grade and up.  If you were caught doing something good like picking up trash or helping someone who fell down, then you got a Golden Good Behavior Slip.  On the flip side, if you were caught throwing the trash on the ground or shoving someone off the jungle gym, you got a Pink Slip.  The important part of those sentences were "if you got caught."  It was very rare that someone got caught making fun of me or pushing me or spitting on me, but you had better believe that if I ever did anything bad that they were on me like white on rice.  It wasn't because I thought that they were out to get me, it's just that it was kinda hard to miss one of the tallest girls in the class, who stuck out like a sore thumb.

I figured this out particularly quickly when I got into an altercation with one of my new classmates, Wesley.  Loren had been put into some other class that year and I didn't really see much of him after that, so Wesley was in many ways his replacement.  He wasn't very nice to me, but I really thought that I had a chance at making friends with him because (and I know this sounds terrible) he looked like he was poor too, with his ratty long hair and hand-me-down clothes, and I figured that we would have some common ground.  But unlike me, Wesley had something positive that set him apart from everyone--he was an amazing artist and all the other kids respected him for it.  This kid could draw anything and I would be shocked if he wasn't famous for it now.  But before I get into that, let me give you some more background here.

Now, I don't know if I have mentioned this or not yet, but at this point I had two other siblings: Jerry and Heather.  I'm not going to use their real names, because they both have very unique names like myself and when shit gets fucked up later on in this book, I'm sure they will appreciate not being mentioned by name.  Jerry is one year younger than me and Heather is about four years younger than me.  (Altogether there are four of us, but I will get to that later!)  Jerry had started school that year and he was picked on just as much as I was.  We both went to the same daycare located next to the elementary school so that we could go to daycare after school was done and I saw first-hand how mean the other kids were to him.  He pretty much looked like the boy version of me, but chunkier and more freckles.  Also, he was pigeon-toed and that just made things worse.

I wish that I could look back and say that I was an awesome sister that always defended my baby brother and came to his rescue when kids were being mean, but I wasn't.  I was the bitchy sister who didn't want to be associated with her sibling and joined right on in when the other kids were teasing him to try and take some of the heat off of myself.  In fact, when Jerry would do something out of the norm and I saw it, I would be the first to point it out to see if I could make the other kids rally with me.  It often backfired. 

Case in point: One day after school the daycare took us to the public pool.  We were all swimming or relaxing up on the grassy hill overlooking the pool.  One girl even sat with me because she liked my new Barbie towel.  It was starting to look like a good day.  I should have just left well enough alone, but nope, not me.  I had to--as my mom would always tell me--"stir the pot."  I saw my brother over by the drainage grate and he was trying to impress another little boy--by eating a snail.  Yeah.  This wasn't an unusual occurrence with Jerry.  Sometimes people would cheer him on for eating weird things or doing crazy stuff.  So being the bitchy little pot-stirrer that I was, I yelled out, "Eww!  Jerry's eating snails!"  And everyone dropped what they were doing to watch.  There was all kinds of racket and reactions and eventually it died down, but when Jerry went to go swimming afterwards, this stupid little bitch Stacy (who was, by kid standards, way bitchier than me) pushes him under the water and won't let him up while yelling, "The Snail Eater is trying to get in the pool with us!"  So instead of drowning, my brother bit her so that she would let him go.  He wasn't a very strong swimmer anyway and he was in the shallow end.  What does the daycare do?  They fucking expelled him and didn't do a damn thing to her.

The daycare said that he overreacted to the situation and shouldn't have taken it to that level.  It was absolute bullshit.  I am too young to know all of the details, because even though I have a decent memory there is still the veil of adult-type stuff over your childhood, but I'm pretty sure that the daycare was just looking for an excuse to get rid of us since my mom was always late picking us up and they would always get pissed off.  Either way, Jerry getting expelled meant that I was going to be gone too because after that my mom decided to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mom--much more on that later--since her mom was no longer there to provide free babysitting services and it didn't make sense to have one kid in daycare and one kid out.  So, with all that explained, we then come back to the Wesley situation.

I was still in a pretty fragile state and it didn't take much to set me off after everything that had happened over the summer.  I really hated coming to school and I just wanted to be left alone since interactions with other kids didn't really end well.  When we weren't in class I spent most of my time at the far end of the playground with what I still think is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen at a school before.  There was this girl in my class, Erin, and she had an older sister who had gone to the school and had passed away at a very early age.  In memoriam of this girl, the school decided to plant a tree in her honor--and then put what looked very much like a gravestone over it and put a creepy white picket fence surrounding it.  And it was right next to the playground! 

The rumors that circled about this thing were everywhere.  Kids were saying she fell off the top of the slide and died or that she swung all the way around the swing set or that she had cancer or that she and her sister had been in a terrible fight and that her sister just got out of jail.  Kids are fucked up.  And then there were the kids who said that her ghost still haunted the school or that her body was buried under the tree making it grow faster and all this other garbage.  This, of course, intrigued me somewhat after Mama's death, and I started to have a keen interest at an early age about what happened to people when they died.  I would visit "the grave" nearly everyday at recess.  It gave me some kind of comfort when I was feeling sad.  I knew that it wasn't Mama's grave, and in the back of my head I knew it wasn't the little girl's grave either, but it made me feel like all dead people and creatures were connected and that if this place was peaceful, then maybe everything was going to be okay.  There was a huge wall of honeysuckles growing next to the fence and when me and the other kids in school weren't taking the middle part out of the flower and eating it like the teachers told us not to, I would take some of the white flowers and sprinkle them on the stone. 

I was performing this morbid flower sprinkling ritual one day when Wesley came over and asked me what I was doing.  I told him that it was for my grandma and he immediately asked me if she was Christian.  I wasn't sure what that was, so I took a guess and said yes.  "Good," he told me, "because if she wasn't then she isn't in Heaven right now.  She could just be walking around like a ghost or in the other bad place."  Then he just walked away.  I sat down on the bench and kept trying to understand what he meant, but I was completely clueless.  I had so many questions.

The next day I went to talk to Wesley on the playground and ask him what he was talking about the day before.  He was on top of the new play structure that the school had just built.  To me, it looked like a castle made of blue and red plastic and plexiglass.  It was relatively tall and I was scared of heights.  So I braved the ladder, the stairs and the tunnel and finally made my way to him.  He had been playing with two of his friends and they stared me down.  Before I could say anything, Wesley asked me what I was doing there and told me to go away.  His friends told me to go away as well.  I caught a brief glance at the ground and how far up we were from it and got all shaky.  I decided it probably would be best to get back to the solid safety of the splinter-riddled tanbark.  I turned to leave and I heard Wesley say, "She's so weird."

I have no idea why that set me off, but it did.  "I'm not weird!" I yelled triumphantly.  "You're weird!"

"Well at least my grandma is still alive!" was his response.  So I kicked him.  Hard.  His friends slid down the slide and ran away and I was left alone with Wesley who wasn't sure what to do next.  I told him he was stupid and he slapped me in the face.  I kicked him again in the other leg and then he punched my arm, but I grabbed him and summoning all of my Jerry-like courage, I bit his hand as hard as I could.  It tasted disgusting.  I think I might have even eaten a tanbark splinter.  There was no blood, but it left a mark.  "Rotten Tooth bit me!" he screamed and then ran after his companions who had already alerted the yard duty parent.

I knew that I was in the wrong, but I couldn't think of what to do.  I was scared from the height and the adrenaline in my little body was pumping.  I crawled into the tunnel, curled up in a ball and started sobbing uncontrollably.  I could hear the bell ring for class in the background, but I stayed put.  "Vindi Birch?  Are you in there?" the yard duty called out to me.  I didn't say anything, so she came up to get me.  "You're in big trouble young lady."  We (the lady, Wesley and myself) marched down to the principal's office and had to talk to Mr. Taylor, the school principal, who was almost always smiling, but now just had that disappointed parent look in his eyes as we sat in the chairs in his office.

At first I tried to say that I didn't bite him, but Wesley showed off the mark I had left on his hand.  In addition to having a brown tooth, I also had giant gaps in my top row of teeth, so the bite mark that I had left really couldn't have belonged to anyone else.  I was so embarrassed.  Not only had I got caught being a bad person, but I also got one of those dreaded Pink Slips that I had tried so hard not to get all year.  Wesley got one too and blamed me for it--perhaps somewhat rightfully.  It was his fault for being a jerk, but it wasn't his fault that I was being all emo and physical. 

A few weeks later, while we sat in the classroom doing busy work with the other bad kids, the good kids got to attend the "No Pink Party" with ice cream and movies at the end of the year.  I looked over at Wesley and felt sad that I had pretty much messed things up with him.  At the time of our altercation the principal made us apologize to each other, but I still felt bad, so I approached him myself after class let out. 

"Hey, I'm sorry that you didn't get to have any ice cream today," I told him in a tiny voice. 

"Yeah, me too," was all he replied.  He started walking away but I stopped him to ask him one more thing.

"Hey, Wes.  When we were talking before you said there was another place that dead people go.  What's the other bad place?"

"My grandpa says it's called Hell and it's for people who live bad lives and do bad things like not being Christian or killing people..." And then this smart-ass first grader finishes with, "...or biting people!"  And then walked away leaving me wide-eyed and afraid.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Shawn-Chapter Three

The summer after kindergarten was pretty messed up.  But before I can explain why, I need to give you a little bit of history on my mom's side of the family.

I have the same last name as my dad, Birch.  But my mom's last name was Stewart.  And, I shit you not, my grandmother's name (Mama) was Martha Stewart.  Unfortunately, she was the famous Martha Stewart's polar opposite.  I didn't realize it at the time, but Mama had an insane hoarding problem.  I didn't really even know what hoarding was until a few years ago.  She had stacks and stacks of things all over the house.  I didn't really have any friends to speak of yet, so I had nothing to compare it to and my mom was not exactly the world's greatest housekeeper either, so I just thought that everyone's house looked like that.  You could barely get into most of the rooms in the house.  Her bedroom was piles of papers and Harlequin romance novels, the guest bedrooms in the house were so full that you couldn't open any of the doors, there was a dining room table somewhere under all of the piles of crap in the dining room and it just kind of spread out from there.  No one was ever allowed in the house.  Ever.

Sadly it was more than just cluttered.  It was disgusting.  The linoleum in the bathrooms and kitchen were being eaten away by grime, it was impossible to tell what the original color of the carpets had been, the house was littered with dog and mouse feces (which smelled great), the lawn was dead and overgrown with weeds and the paint was chipping off the side of the house.  The neighbors hated it.  I didn't know what property value was, but I clearly remember hearing my parents say that the neighbors were complaining that her house was bringing everyone's down.  When the earthquake hit in '89, I had to squeeze under a table because I couldn't get to a door frame like I had learned in school.  I was buried under all the stuff that had fallen around me and it was pretty damn scary as a kid. 

One day that summer, my mom went out to get her nails done and go shopping with my baby sister and my dad had gone out somewhere with my brother.  That left me with Mama at her house.  Mama had lived alone because earlier that year, my grandfather, 'Andad, (because I couldn't say Granddad and everyone thought it was so damn cute, so it stuck) had passed away.  She had been all alone in that hellhole of a house unless one of her four kids came to visit.  I think that's why she never minded watching me and my siblings.  But she wasn't doing too well herself.  She was grossly overweight to the point where her entire closet was filled with muumuus, she had circulation problems that caused her to walk with a cane and she had asthma, which looking back, was probably a result of the bad fumes in the house.

It was a very ordinary day.  I had just come home from playing with the little blond boy up the street, Shawn, who was a few years older than me, Mama had made me a fried egg sandwich and I was all curled up in the living room watching my favorite show at the time, "The Elephant Show."  Props to you if you remember it.  All of a sudden I heard a crash in the kitchen and Mama had dropped a few plates.  I went to go see what had happened and I saw her leaning on the kitchen counter for support.  She looked really scared and she told me to grab her cane because she needed to sit down.  I came back with the cane and she looked even worse.  She told me that she was dizzy and needed me to get her medicine.  I can't remember if it was pills or an inhaler or what, but I got it for her and helped her sit down in the hallway by the front door.  I remember her looking me dead in the eye from behind the yellowing rims of her glasses and she said, "This isn't working. Call an ambulance now!"

In addition to earthquake preparation training at school, we also had a fireman come to class and teach us about 9-1-1 and how and when to use it.  Never in a million years did I think that I would have to use it so soon.  I tried to use the phone in the kitchen, but it was a rotary phone and I was too panicked to make it work.  I ran into the living room, weaving in and out of obstacles blocking my path, and I dialed those three magic numbers that I had learned.  I don't recall what I had said, but whatever it was, the first operator didn't believe me.  She told me that kids shouldn't play tricks just because they learned how to dial that number.  I raced back to Mama and told her that I had been hung up on and she told me that I had to try again.  Finally, the second operator helped me out and sent someone on their way, but in the meantime things were looking grim.

When I got back to her in the hallway, she started breathing really deeply.  She told me that it was suddenly really hard for her to breathe.  I remember her grabbing my hand and giving me an insanely worried look.  The front door to the house had nine square glass windowpanes on it and I saw someone approaching quickly.  I figured that maybe the ambulance got there really fast, so I opened the door to let him in.  It turned out that it was the postman.  I needed an adult really badly at that moment so I told him what was going on.  I remember saying in a tiny voice, "My Mama is really sick!  Can you please help me?" 

The postman looked a lot like the Micro-Machines guy and had a mustache and everything.  Mama was having a hard time staying in the chair, so the postman told me to go grab some pillows and blankets and he would help me lay her down on the floor.  I did what he asked and he did help her lay down, but as her breathing got worse and worse he did the unthinkable.  He couldn't handle the situation and made some bullshit excuse and left a six-year-old kid with her dying grandmother.  I could see how upset Mama was at that point and I remember the last thing that she said to me was, "Call Warren."  Fortunately I could read really well and our phone had speed dial, or I would have been absolutely useless right there.  I called my uncle and he came down as soon as he could.  He got there right after the ambulance and the fire truck. 

Her breathing had become so staggered at that point that it was barely happening at all.  She couldn't talk anymore and just kept staring up at me.  I was holding her hand the whole time, the front door wide open, so that anyone would be able to see inside and could try and help.  But by the time the emergency vehicles came, I stopped seeing her chest move up and down and she was completely still.  The medics moved me out of the way, shocked by the inside of the house, and put her on the gurney and took her away.  I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the last time that I would ever see her. 

My uncle came in and he seemed like he was the only person who realized that I was there.  I don't know if I was crying or not at that point because I don't think that I completely understood what was going on, but he told me that I had just done a very brave thing and he gave me a hug that seemed to last forever.  I asked him if Mama was going to be okay and he just looked away and couldn't answer.  We tried reaching my parents, but before the advent of cellphones it was really challenging.  It couldn't have been too long before someone got home, but the rest of that afternoon was a blur. 

That night I remember my mom getting ready to go down to the hospital and I begged to come but she wouldn't let me.  She said that I wasn't old enough, but I knew that was a lie.  She just kept crying and told me that she had to go say goodbye, but I didn't realize what that meant--that is until the next morning when I found out that she had passed away.  "Passed away" wasn't a term that I was familiar with.  I asked my mom what that meant, but when I did she couldn't do anything but weep.  My dad stepped in and tried his best to explain to me what it was, but after all the kind euphemisms and straight out telling me that she had died didn't work, he simply told me that she was gone and that she was never coming back.

All I could think of at that point was that I would never see her again.  I remember curling up into a ball on the floor of my bedroom and just repeating over and over again, "But, I didn't get to say goodbye... I'll never get to say goodbye..."  I was absolutely crushed.  The only interaction that I really had with my mom was when she was driving me to school, and my dad worked really long hours during the week, so we only really hung out on the weekends.  Mama was really all I had five days a week.  I was so angry at my mom right there.  In my mind, I could have said goodbye, but she wouldn't let me.  And as a snotty, selfish little kid, I kept telling her that too.  I didn't take into consideration that she had lost her mom.  I was just upset that I had lost someone.

Eventually, after all the poking and prodding, she blew up at me about a week afterwards and told me that the reason that I couldn't go was that she had already passed and she didn't want me to see that.  I understand now that it was better that way, but for years when I was a kid I held that against her like you wouldn't believe.  We would get in a fight or I would be sad and start crying about something completely unrelated and the angry words just spewed forth from my mouth. "You didn't even let me say goodbye to Mama!"

I don't remember the funeral at all, but I'm sure that there was one.  I can't even recall if I went or not.  I have a great memory, but I must have blocked a few things out, because that part is gone. About a month after she had passed, I remember that I needed to get a glass of water really early in the morning, like around six or so.  I stepped out into the kitchen (which was always covered in slugs because the space under the door was too big and they would crawl underneath and come in) and got my water.  I walked slowly to avoid spilling my water and to pop as few slugs under my feet as humanly possible.  What happened next, I still have in my head all these years later against all logic.

I am an Atheist and have been for many years now, but as I headed back to my room that night I swear that I saw my grandmother's ghost in the hallway.  She was there for about thirty seconds and waved and smiled at me and vanished.  It's the one and only time that I ever saw anything like that, but it was so real to me.  As an adult I am sitting here telling myself that maybe it was just the early morning light reflecting off of a picture in the hallway, or it was just my mind trying to provide closure or something that I can explain away.  But as a kid, I kind of liked to think that it was her way of saying goodbye.

I couldn't go back to bed after that had happened, so I just stayed out in the living room watching early Saturday morning television.  It woke my parents up and they came out to see what was going on.  I tried to tell them what I saw, but my dad said that I just needed more sleep and my mom just got upset and went to go cry in the other room.  It was a sad and creepy thing that scared me for months and still scares me a bit to this day, but it made me feel a teeny, tiny bit better.  The downside to my "vision" was that my dad liked to watch "Unsolved Mysteries" on TV and that night an episode involving a ghost came on and the theme music gave me this terrifying association.  To this day the theme song to that show still haunts me.

We had a lot of cleaning to do after she was gone.  And I don't mean light cleaning.  I mean, industrial strength, had to rent a sixty-foot dumpster for three days, cleaning.  The neighbors were coming out in droves to see what we were throwing out.  My dad had to scare one of them off because he was digging through the dumpster being nosey.  Everything was just being absolutely gutted.  It needed to be cleaned, but at the same time there was another reason--no one had ever found their will.  This may seem like a minor thing, but when you have four kids in a family that don't exactly get along too well, things can get ugly.  And along with all of the ugly things going on, there was one more stupid thing that pushed me over the deep end.

The boy that I would play with up the street from Mama's house, Shawn, didn't come around very often after she had passed.  We were there all the time trying to clean more and more out of the house.  (It took us a total of four years to even get that house anywhere near presentable with all of the cleaning and remodeling that had to be done.)  When I had my fill of cleaning for the day I would ask if I could go over and play with Shawn and my parents would agree to get me out of their hair.  Shawn, another toe-head blond, actually had a complicated living situation himself.  His parents were divorced and he lived with his grandmother most of the time.  I had no idea what divorce was, but I knew from what he had said that it was bad.  His grandmother, Portia, was not a very nice lady and seemed to be one of the neighbors that shared the opinion that Mama's house was a menace to the neighborhood.

I remember one particular day where I went to see if Shawn could come out to play and Portia answered the door.  She was a frail wisp of a lady with thinning grey hair.  She loved to walk her dog and was always wearing these dreadful velour pantsuits when she would walk around.  When she came to the door she looked at me with disdain in my worn clothes, my huge glasses and my messy hair.  I nicely asked if Shawn could come out to play and she abruptly told me that he wasn't home.  I was turning around to leave when I suddenly heard Shawn ask her who was at the door.

She lied to me!  I didn't know what to say!  I thought that maybe she was going senile or something, so I stopped her and said, "Wait!  I see him right there!  Hi, Shawn!"  She rudely slammed the door in my face.  I was taken aback, but apparently I didn't get the message because my dumb little ass knocked on the door again and she flung it open and told me very bluntly, "Listen and listen good.  I'm sorry that your grandma died, but maybe it was for the best because it looks like you guys are finally cleaning up that eyesore.  Shawn already has enough going on in his life, so he doesn't need you adding more to it.  Please don't come back!"  And she slammed the door again and let me just stand there like an idiot.

I was crushed.  I slinked down the sidewalk back to the house and started crying all the way back. My dad told me that I had to be strong and that Portia "had always had a stick up her ass" so I shouldn't worry too much about what she had to say.  The thought of an old lady with a giant stick up her butt made me laugh and feel a little better about it, but I still sat sulking on the front porch for the rest of the afternoon.  That is until a few hours later when Shawn walked by the house walking Portia's damn little dog.

I ran over to him and asked him if he wanted to play and he told me in a very sour tone that, "I can't be your friend anymore.  My grandma says your family is white trash and that I'm not allowed to hang out with you."  I didn't know what white trash was, but I knew it wasn't good, so I told him that he was a jerk.  He just laughed at me cruelly and said to me, "Whatever. My grandma says your house is so bad that the lawn isn't  even clean enough for her dog to shit on!"  I looked down at the little white dog and low and behold he was starting to make doggie circles looking for a place to do his doggie business.  "Go on, little guy!  Poop!" he told the dog.

And without any warning something inside of me just snapped and I pushed Shawn down to the ground.  He dropped the leash and the dog ran away back down the street.  He was tall and skinny and once I had him on the sidewalk I kicked him a few times in the side.  I still don't know how, but somewhere in there his mouth hit the curb and one of his front baby teeth got knocked out.  He cried out in shock and I stood there in shock.  We looked at each other for a split second and then he picked himself up as fast as he could and ran back home.

I couldn't believe that I had actually hurt someone so badly.  There was still a tiny bit of blood on the sidewalk from where the tooth came out.  I was upset, but I didn't know what to say, so I just kept it to myself and hid in the backyard.  I almost thought that I had gotten away with it too, but then about two hours later Shawn's mom got home from work and she marched down to the house with Shawn and I got into some pretty big trouble.  I still recall her leathery tanned skin, her peroxide blonde hair and her smokers rasp.  I think her name was Candy or Sandy or some other stripper sounding kind of name.  Either way, it was the last time that Shawn ever really came down to my part of the street.  And the rest of the summer was basically just as crappy.  It wasn't until the school year began that things started to get interesting again.