The House Downtown
I hurt. My short, fat legs, each with a dent in the middle, stick straight out on top of a pile of lumber, the rough boards pressing against the back of my legs, sharp splinters digging into my skin. My sunsuit is red, speckled with white dots, with a ruffle around the openings for my legs; a little ruffled top covers my tiny nipples; buttoned straps hold up the top and cross behind my back, where they button onto my sunsuit. The air is filled with the sharp smell of new wood. I am afraid of the yellow wood, of the bumps of dried grass in the packed dirt of the backyard, of the clothesline filled with white clothes whipping in the wind, of the hard, bright light.
First, I am walking down the sidewalk in my underpants. One second later, the air is filled with something so big there is no room left to breathe or walk or see in, something so loud that I do not understand it is a sound; instead, it is something hard that has taken up all the space around me and above me and is pressing down on me. Then, all of a sudden, it goes away, leaving behind waves of air rushing to fill the empty space, and the sound of my screaming, moving down the sidewalk toward my house.
Two old women live in a cabin a few doors from my house. One is so old she canít stand up; she sits in a chair with a blanket wrapped around her legs. The other is gray and smiling and wants to give me cookies. Low ceiling, dark room, air heavy with the smell of old things and the wood smoke from the pot-bellied stove I stand behind, hiding. When my frightened mother comes to find me, I move closer and closer to the hot metal so she canít see me, until it touches the bare skin of my stomach where it sticks out over my panties.
It is little, one story; inside are small dark rooms with low ceilings, and stairs going down to the basement. Outside it has white shingles and a white lattice by the door where blue morning glories grow. The windows have blue shutters, and in the front, a shaggy evergreen grows on each side of the front step. There I am in front of the house, having my picture taken on my red tricycle, wearing a toy six-gun and an Army officerís hat.
You can never go down to the river by yourself; you can only go there with big kids, like your brother, who has a tree house there. The river is dangerous; it has a dangerous smell and dangerous plants and animals and snakes; bad men go there and do nasty things. When you go down to the river you find beer and whisky bottles and ladiesí high heels and pieces of clothing, and empty red shotgun shells and empty .22 shells. In one special place, blue flowers grow. They are bluebells, like pieces of sky in the dark clumped grass, small worlds of blue you could fall into. The blossoms hang on their stems like upside-down cups holding the color blue, so if you were a fairy you could pick one and drink from it, and blue would pour out of it and down your throat. And if you were a fairy sleeping in the river grass, you might be waked up by hearing bluebells ringing.
You can get to the river through peopleís backyards, through an empty field, or by a gravel road that runs by the big round sewage plant, surrounded by a high metal fence. After I grow up, I will dream over and over about the small rise of this gravel road just before it leads through the trees to the river. I will always be just arriving there, always just about to walk over the rise and down to the water, and every inch of the ground and of the air will be ripe with almost unbearable expectation.
I am lying upside down on the scratchy green davenport with my head hanging over the edge, blowing on a small tin trumpet that has lost its wooden mouthpiece. When I fall backward onto the floor, the sharp end jams into the roof of my mouth. Now I am in my fatherís office, being held down by my mother on the green examining table. I am screaming and struggling, and above me are the large faces of my parents: my motherís, weeping helplessly, and my fatherís, red and swollen and shouting at my mother to hold me still so he can sew me up. He is shouting, Hold her down, Nell! Make her stay still! And she is crying, I canít, Clyde! I canít make her hold still!
There are big kids in the neighborhood, Tiny Allen and his brother, who are nice to me, and big girls who live one house over. One day, the big girls make so much popcorn that they have to put it in a metal washtub. We all sit around the living room and eat popcorn and drink Dr. Pepper.
A high-school girl named Catherine lives next door. She has shiny, smooth red-brown hair that turns under. When her boyfriend drives up in his convertible, she runs out of the house and her hair flies straight out behind her like a river.
Because it is World War II, the town is full of soldiers. Some of them are peeping Toms. One night, one comes and looks in the window of the house next door. Someone sees him and yells to scare him away. My brother and I sit at the window of our bedroom with the light turned off, hoping he will come back, but he never does.
I find several tiny olive-green plastic soldiers in some mud. I am sure that they belong to Tiny Allen, but somehow they seem to be more than just toys. Each soldier wears a helmet and holds a gun, and has a flat stand on the bottom of his feet so he can stand up.
One day, I am looking in a trash can in front of the house across the street when I find a terrifying thing: a small white box full of shiny, dark red fingernails. Just then, I hear loud voices coming from the outhouse. Listening, I realize to my amazement that Santa Claus and the Devil are fighting with each other in the outhouse, and the Devil is screaming at Santa Claus and trying to beat him up. For several seconds, I am transfixed with fright; then I run home as fast as I can, where my mother makes me throw away the fingernails.
Afterward, I was sure I had seen them, Santa Claus in his red suit with his face almost as red, pushed back against one wall of the outhouse and wrestling with the Devil, whose skin really is red, and the outhouse is rocking back and forth and the roof is jumping up and down and the sides are bowing out and giving off little puffs of smoke. But in reality, there was only the outhouse, unmoving, and two screaming voices, and me, small and big-eyed, standing by myself on the sidewalk.
The last spring we lived downtown, it rained heavily and the river rose until it flooded the little houses on the gravel road by the river and the big movie theater beside the Roubidoux Bridge. Then it kept rising until it flooded our backyard, the milky brown water coming up between the rows of round green bouquets of lettuce in our garden, until there was so much water that one day two men went rowing by in a boat in the lot behind our house.
Years later, I have this dream, over and over: I am trying to walk across the Crocker Bridge over the Gasconade as the silver bridge is breaking apart, the entire middle section already torn away by the flood; as I walk along the crumbling wooden slats of the roadbed, beneath my feet I can see thick gray water swelling and roiling almost to the bridge bed, and I struggle to cross the collapsing bridge, even though I can already see that the end of the bridge has been swallowed up in the flooded cornfields on the other side, and there is nothing but gray water and gray sky as far as I can see.