I viewed my new surroundings without the usual trepidation. No gangs with exposed artillery, no sirens, no noise at all except the squawk of blue jays frolicking with the songbirds, and the whinny of a horse from somewhere in the distance.
As we cruised behind the moving truck on the shady oak-studded street, I drooled over every mansion and their expanses of well-manicured lawns. Since moving to California, years earlier, I'd become convinced that all houses were square and plopped on equal-sized lots only slightly larger than the house that rested on it. Those East L.A. days were behind me. I couldn't believe my good fortune. Thank you, God. Now I could blend in. And with the best of them. Oh, yes, high-ranking royalty. No middle ground here, shootin' straight to the aristocratic top.
My smile widened with each new passing scene and through my peripheral vision, I glimpsed my protruded cheek upon which a happy tear left its glistening trail. My hands balled up into eager, clenched fists. I shuddered in delight. I pinched myself to ensure I wasn't still in bed asleep in the ghetto.
Then I wondered when fate would sneak in and call for sacrifice for its inescapable dues. What sort of meteor shower would rain on me so that the planets could continue to orbit?
"Looks like spider country," Mama grumbled from the front seat. "I don't like me them spiders. Uh-hum, no way. I'm gonna get me a chicken. Chickens are great for combatin' spiders. 'Specially black widows. I hate black widows. And Gerber here ain't worth his weight in bird seed for spider extermination." Gerber protested by squawking in pigeon speak. "Oh, hush. What are you good for but a live feathered hat?"
My happy tear returned and did a quick wardrobe change to a sad tear. My cheeks deflated; my fists uncurled. I shuddered in dread. Mama always said, "You can take the Okie out of Oklahoma, but you can't take Oklahoma out of an Okie."
We pulled up to our storybook green house with white trim, which sat meekly amid two giants: a Spanish Colonial, with only a meadow between us, and a stately English manor behind ancient oaks. Both with a full view of the clothesline Mama immediately erected.
Let the planets resume their rotation.
My Swedish dollhouse-looking school was the only one in the exclusive east end that wasn't private. It accommodated one hundred students and seldom reached full capacity. Mama and I stood before the shady, wooded elementary schoolyard with trees of exaggerated heights and widths seen only in Disney movies. The atmosphere felt different here, like I had stepped through an invisible window to the enchanted land of fairytales and princesses. And witches.
As soon as I scrutinized the group of prim kids cut from a different cloth than me—cashmere to my polyester—I wanted to leave. Their straight white teeth and coordinated outfits informed me my world would never connect to theirs, which had its own protective ozone against prestige-polluting Okies.
I wore Beth's hand-me-downs. Good, since she took fashion seriously, even getting an after school job to fund her wardrobe habit. Bad, since—though, she was six years older—I had already outgrown her by two inches. Her old pink bell-bottoms rested a margin above my ankles; her tie-dye halter-top hung limply upon my undeveloped chest. I completed the look with tube socks and holey penny loafers. My hair sported a new self-inflicted do. If I were aiming for the mullet look, I succeeded. Hee Haw meets the Stepford Children.
Mama's hair was busy with poof. She'd curled, teased, and sprayed it into an elaborate dome of red with lipstick to match. She wore canary-yellow hip-huggers with a red satin blouse and looked like the Supremes' white twin. No other mother appeared to have fussed with her natural, unshaped hippie hair, let alone brushed it. They were adorned in silver jewelry, dressed in earthy clothing, and wore no makeup. Besides being tanned, bony, and wearers of Birkenstocks, they all had in common a look that implied a diet of nuts and berries and tree bark.
I looked skyward, ready to give God a piece of my mind, when I saw a gray pigeon (not mine) perched next to a white dove on a power line. Very funny, God.
As we walked the grounds, I calculated that if I ran like blazes, I could be halfway up the mountainside, preparing to live out the rest of my life as a hermit before Mama noticed my absence.
An office secretary pointed us in the direction of my teacher, Mr. Brownstain, a steer-shaped man squeezed into country club casual attire. He was shaking hands with important-looking parents outside the classroom. Without regard to us, he chattered on with unblinking servitude: bending forward, cupping the hands of the worthy, discussing vacations and town hall politics. I detected polite aloofness in the people of this school, but my teacher either didn't see us or didn't want to.
Mama sighed loudly when he passed her by to greet the mother behind her. Mama crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight from one leg to the other in exaggerated movements. Eventually, he turned to face her, and I saw a brief flicker of fear. Then he looked at me and almost fell apart. He quickly regained himself, evaluated Mama with a disapproving stare, then gave us a dismissive snort.
Mama, no more impressed with him than he with us, rejoined his snort with one of her more practiced ones and looked at him like he was a compost heap. He offered his hesitant hand, but she kept her hands on her hips and gave him the drill. “She can’t hear good. Sit 'er up front. No spanking.”
“It's the '70s, not the '50s."
Mama raised her eyebrow in response.
"Well, spanking isn’t a policy of ours here at—”
“Remember what I said.” She turned the corner and was out of sight; his rejected hand returned to his side.
He shook his head. “That's some mother of yours. Is she always like that?”
“I reckon so.”
In the classroom, Brownstain seated me in front, as ordered by Mama. Directly in front of his desk; Mama wouldn't like that. He hiked his right buttock over his desktop, which caused the wood to groan. I waited for it to splinter and shatter, but he interrupted my voyeurism and had me introduce myself to the class since I was the only new kid. At least, for once, I wasn't the only white kid.
“Tell the class your name,” he said loudly and slowly, pointing to his ears as a gesture to the class that I couldn’t hear.
“Patty,” I responded, concentrating hard on not rocking back and forth; my comfort move that my brother advised against doing in public.
"Tell me about your summer," he said to me. Hands shot up like jack-in-the-boxes. Kids, eager and spastic, anxious for attention. “Okay, Becky.” Mr. Brownstain threw up his arms, exasperated. “What is it you want to share with the class?"
“Daddy bought a new yacht," she blurted. "He named it Rebecca, and we spent the summer sailing in Mexico.”
“I went to Disney World,” someone chimed.
“I went skiing in the Patagonia,” yelled one with a suntan and white raccoon eyes.
“Wait!" Brownstain had his hand in the air like a traffic cop. "Everyone will have a turn; let’s give Patty a chance to tell us what she did.”
Unprepared for the spotlight again so soon, I had abruptly forgotten everything about me, including my name. A brief silence settled over the room, and Mr. Brownstain asked me again, louder and slower. “You must have done something, Patty. Please share with the class what it was.”
The kids glared at me for stealing attention, intruding on their summer sharing. I tried remembering something noteworthy. I doubted I'd appeal to the neatly dressed girls with perky, shiny hair—some with a green tinge from their summer in the swimming pool—about my new library card. So I came up with the only event I could think of since everyone in my family said I did this repeatedly over the summer.
“I coveted other people’s houses.” I didn’t know what covet meant exactly. I thought it meant to study, observe, or explore, because that was what I was doing, in my opinion. And it had a sophisticated ring to it.
Confused inquiries about what covet meant started the ruckus. It escalated to who had a better horse or a darker tan. Someone had chickenpox over the summer, another had broken his arm. Meanwhile, Mr. Brownstain’s jaw hung unhinged.
Finally, he gained control by blowing his whistle, enabling him to resume his interrogation. “You just go poking around houses and wishing they were yours?”
“S'pose so,” I said, feeling heat rise to my face.
He half sat on his desk, one chubby leg dangling, hands clasped together, and a smile the size of Texas. “Explain.”
“I spots good ones, some's off the road a ways, then I stops and look awhile, is all.”
“Am I to conclude you stare at other people’s houses?”
“So you’re the creepy one with the bird on your head,” yelled raccoon boy sitting next to me, who I sensed wanted a seat elsewhere. Brownstain just laughed, and when he laughed, he invited the whole class to join in. I wished for death or shrinkage but submitted to utter uninflected disengagement instead.
With the exception of, "You're-a-honky," at recess came the usual observances and inquiries: "You’re tall." "How old are you?" "Really, you look older." So intolerant of it by now, I searched for a hiding place. Orange groves bordered half the school in an L-shaped pattern. I ventured to the edge of the school property and peered at the corridors between trees; rows and rows of them just like Romero's hair the last day I saw him. Without the inconvenience of a fence, I stepped into the dark forest of orange trees and inhaled their sweet scent. I let my imagination wander as far as my steps; far enough away not to hear the whistle that indicated recess had ended. Upon my return, I saw the playground had emptied save for a few dozen frenzied adults scanning the halls and schoolyard calling for me.
I casually approached because, with no other plan formulated, relaxed indifference seemed my best option. Mr. Brownstain herded me back to the classroom without a word said. All eyes were on me upon my return. The walk to my desk seemed as slow as an underwater trot.
"Were you spying again?"
"No," I answered.
"The orchard is private property and off-limits. Do you know what ‘off-limits’ means? It means no trespassing. Do you know what no trespassing means? Apparently with you it's your hobby." He approached my desk and lowered his voice. "If you promise never to go there again, I won't tell your parents."
I agreed on account of he spoke numerous words.
The school was too small for a cafeteria, so students and teachers brought their own lunches. In my old L.A. school, I was considered privileged because I had a lunch box, often having to protect it under the jealous scorn of those wielding a sack. I had read their minds and watched their movements, never taking my attention off their harmful intentions to scratch, dent. They had brandished old bread bags, large grocery sacks, or nothing at all, offering food or switchblades in trade for my hand-me-down red plaid lunch box. Every day had been a battlefield.
No such worries existed here, and they had themed lunch boxes: Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, and Disney Princesses. These pails, which I coveted (my new word), sat undisturbed on wooden lunch tables situated under a canopy of trees. And these tables sat vulnerable, unanchored by chains, where in L.A., even the trashcans were theft proofed.
I preferred a table-for-one and required respectable space between the next person and me. I found the distance of nine inches agreeable. Yet, even that was too close for my new classmates, who scooted near on top of each other to avoid me—the trespasser. Scarlet letter T.
I opened my rusty lunchbox to find two fried chicken legs, a large red apple, and a note from Mama. A hand reached in from behind me and snatched the note. I looked around to see Nellie from my class.
"A note from hick's mother," she announced. "I wonder if hick can read. I doubt it, so I'll do her the favor. Dear Patty, I hope you have a good first day at school. Love, Mama. P.S. You're ugly."
A roar of laughter honked through the air like geese flying south for the winter. Some kids actually believed the P.S. part of the letter. I filled my lunch box with rocks and bashed her brains in—no wait, I didn’t. I visualized it, though. Instead, I just sat there until she was bored enough to wad it up and throw it at me.
After school, I had my first bus experience and worried I'd board the wrong one (there was only one). I asked the bus driver if he went to Gridley Road. He looked at me like I'd grown a third eye and laughed.
Nellie pushed me. "Sit down, stupid."
I sat down but not where she wanted me to, so I moved about the bus until the impatient bus driver told me to sit behind him. In spite of my harsh bus introduction, I was enthralled to ride on one, and the stops it made to territories I'd not yet trespassed. I was able to see where all my schoolmates lived, the estates they ran off to, and was glad to be the last stop so not to miss a single one.
I trotted off the bus, pretending to be a horse, and galloped home to find Mama preparing an area in the back for a garden. She asked me how my first day went.
Horrible. Got lost in the orchards. Brownstain humiliated me. They all laughed at me. My lunch box is prehistoric, and my clothes, hair, and face are ugly. “Fine, I guess.”
She lit a cigarette and gave me a squinty-eyed, doubtful look.
That night at the dinner table when my sister and brothers discussed their exciting first day of high school, Mama still had a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and her eyes still bored into me with that same doubtful look.
She interrupted the commotion. “I don’t like his snivelin', beady pig eyes, and that untrustin' smirk. A shifty two-faced liar is what I think.”
Daddy looked up from his plate. “Why Reba, I thought you done married me on my finer attributes. Now you go along and see my faults and feel an urgent need to broadcast them.”
She shot Daddy a glare that said, “Not now,” and then to me said, “Is there anything I should know about this peep of a man?”
I wasn’t sure if she knew about the orchard, testing me to see if I'd come clean. She'd caught every theft and lie any one of us ever committed and said she "had a way to tell." Under the intensity of her interrogation glare, I confessed instantly and then watched as her eyes increased ten-fold in diameter.
The next morning, Mama thundered to the office counter in a huff. “How's it my child was gone missin’ and no one bothered tellin' me about it?” Brownstain jumped and spilled his coffee—probably interrupted his discussion on the Okie blight enrolled in their pocket-sized school. He looked to the office staff for reinforcement then to his cigar-shaped fingers on his beefy hand. No one volunteered an answer. The secretary and the other teacher busied themselves behind file folders.
Mama pulled up a chair and sat, indicating she had all day, then bounced hate rays off him. Sweat beads dotted his square forehead. “It wasn’t long really.” He shuffled a bit. “And she came right back.”
Mama continued her evil stare, watching him perspire, tremble, and twitch, for what seemed like an hour. The office staff had an apparent urgent need to be somewhere else and abandoned Brownstain into the homicidal hands of my mother.
"It's Patty you should talk to.”
“My issue with her ain't your business. My issue with you," she snarled, stood, and poked his chest, "is the fact you neglected to tell me. If someone even looks at her wrong, I want to know. I ain't one of them mothers who spend time hoverin', helpin' out, and makin' good with the teachers; if you see me, you done somethin' wrong.”
Actually, she was one of those "hoverin'" mothers, just for different reasons. When any of us kids —mainly me—complained of a bully, she was sitting in the classroom the next day projecting the evil eye. The child in question was not only turned hypnotically well behaved but developed an odd devotion to her, as well. Boy or girl, they saw Mama as a goddess of worship. Brownstain exhibited all the fear without the necessary God-fearing respect and adoration she usually earned.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. Relief that this meeting was over was evident on his face. I was not relieved. I heard the universe laughing at me, coming to collect my inescapable dues. Rich or poor, black or white, I was an outsider to them. A trespasser.
Tricia Sutton is a hearing-impaired writer of many whims. The above story is an episode from her almost finished book titled Hiding in the Spotlight. Other excerpts from the book were published in The Rambler and in Hazard Cat. She has an article in A Simple Life of Joy, and a short story is forthcoming in The Shine Journal. She lives in California with her husband and two kids and some cats. She welcomes visitors to her writing blog at http://dfmil09.wordpress.com
© 2010, Tricia Sutton
© 2010, Tricia Sutton