Adults say you should always listen to your elders because they know better. After all, these are mixed up crazy times we live in. According to some, these are the worst times we’ve ever faced in the history of the human race from here to kingdom come.
But I don’t think any of those things are true.
How do I know?
One night, I was lying on my bed, like I wasn’t supposed to, while doing my social studies homework, wishing my Easy Bake Oven could still make cookies. That’s when hunger led to inspiration. Mr. Stillwell warned us not to read ahead beyond chapter six as it would be an unfair advantage. Well, I thought, people get paid good money to predict the future. Bookies, astrologists, bankers, and weathermen all know what’s gonna happen.
Inside information Uncle Jimmy called it. I wanted some too. So, I, Agnes O’Doul, of the Ninth Street O’Doul’s, on this day in the year of our Lord 1965 broke the rules.
I became a time traveler.
Our sixth-grade class was stuck in the Reconstruction Era so I traveled to the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, and took a quick look at both WW’s. Not just the beginning of chapters and the picture captions, I read the ends too. And you know what? Each chapter said our great republic just overcame the worst thing that could have happened. Wars, natural disasters, and pestilences of the ages descended upon us.
Elder advice got us in as much trouble as no advice. Things we fought for and won made people even more unhappy when they got them. Everything was always a mess. Yet we’re still here.
Me being me, I couldn’t hold back that knowledge. I became the class Nostradamus whispering snippets of the future into the past until Peggy Livermore ratted me out. Mr. Stillwell ordered me to sit next to him. At the end of class, he said on account of all my accumulated past indiscretions, I had a date with the brand new school psychologist. Uncle Jimmy called them shrinks because they suck the brains out of your head with a straw to make them smaller. Mr. Stillwell said in the olden days I would’ve been whooped and become a better person for it.
“We’re not co-teaching this class, I am,” he said, looking up at me as he scribbled a note to the shrink. “Remember, curiosity killed the cat.”
“Well,” I added, leaning over his desk, “it sure gave Mr. Thomas Alva Edison nine lives.”
He pushed down on my shoulder plunking me back in the chair again.
“That claptrap mouth of yours just earned you an unwanted vacation this afternoon young lady,” he said, pulling a pink detention slip out of his desk drawer and slapping it on the desk.
It was pre-printed on cardboard like the ones on a Monopoly Board. I was sure if it was up to Mr. Stillwell he’d have dragged me there himself the way the cop did that little mustached fellow on the game card. When the bell rang, the boys marched past making faces at me on the way to woodshop while the rest of the girls rolled their eyes going to home ec.
I was surprised to see Miss Priscilla Pembroke sitting behind the desk in the new psychologist’s office that used to be the mimeograph room. She wore a white jacket and a monstrous beehive hairdo. Her glittery cat glasses made her look like a giant ant woman. I once overheard my mother at the laundromat say the only thing Miss Pembroke knew how do was fill out that slinky black thing she wore in the Steno’s pool, which is probably where she met her new boss Principal Larson. He was a summer lifeguard, you know.
Maybe her head got too heavy from holding up all that hair because she held it in both hands staring at the paper Mr. Stillwell told me to give her. For the longest time, I sat wagging my feet between the chair legs being quiet and respectful.
“Please stop that,” she said, holding her hand out like she was casting a spell.
“Stop what?” I asked.
“That noise,” she said pointing at the chair.
“Oh,” I nodded, kicking again, “it only happens when one of my legs goes wrong, see.”
“Pleassse,” she said, frantically checking book cover after book cover.
“You want me to help look? Pops always wants to know how in the H-E double two sticks I find stuff… but I always do.”
Ignoring me, she reached into a filing cabinet and pulled out a bunch of big square cards.
“Let’s play a little game, shall we?” she said, sitting back down.
Miss Pembroke showed me a bunch of pictures. All I had to do was tell her what they looked like. I reminded her I was already in the sixth grade and a little old for this kind of malarkey.
They were a bunch of blotchy drawings. The first one looked like Pops spread out on the couch with an empty beer can between his legs. The next reminded me of aliens like those chasing that space family around on TV with the robot yelling, “Warning, Warning!” while nobody listened.
The last one.
A lady’s privates.
That set Miss Pembroke buzzing. She asked how I knew what a lady’s private area looked like.
“One day I decided to look at my own when nobody was home because the boys were always talking about them on the bus.”
Miss Pembroke quickly scooped up the blotchy pictures the way Uncle Jimmy does his playing cards when he hears my Mother coming. Then she backed away from me as people often do when a dog starts foaming at the mouth.
“What else do you do when you’re alone,” she asked, pushed up against the cinderblock wall.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I read a lot.”
Thought about ice cream sundaes and the stars above.
Once when I was younger, I just started kissing the Barbie I inherited from my older sister Magella. Miss Pembroke was suddenly back in her chair grabbing my hands as if I was about to slide off Niagara Falls.
“Where did you kiss her?”
“On the lips, her face, where else can you kiss someone?”
“Wearing what?” she asked, desperately.
“My little brother’s Speed Racer pajamas because all of mine were in the wash.”
“No,” she asked again banging our hands on the desktop. “What was Barbie wearing?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I threw all her stuff in the washer when my Mother wasn’t looking.”
“Does your mother allow you to play with … unclothed dolls?”
Miss Pembroke pulled a long pencil out of her hair and begin scribbling on a pad.
“She didn’t seem naked with all those rivets and hinges,” I added.
I sensed I’d just gotten myself in a whole lot of trouble.
“What about Ken?” she asked, earnestly scribbling.
“I don’t have a Ken.”
Saying it didn’t make me half as sad as I thought it would.
“What made you want to kiss her?”
“Do people think things like that through? I guess I was just all happy.”
“Do you think dolls are real?”
Real? This was an old Barbie with only one eye, half her hair missing, and all the red rubbed off her lips. Maybe that was from my sister kissing her too, but I kept that to myself.
“They can be realer than people who try to pretend they’re dolls.”
One thing led to another, and before you knew it, I had missed home ec, phys ed, and study hall. Whatever trouble I was in, Miss Pembroke did a good job of hiding it as we chatted away. Finally, she tapped the pencil on her nose and then pointed it at me, “I think I need to have a little talk with your mother.”
That meant hauling Father Brendan out from the old neighborhood again for mutton stew. Some families keep lawyers under their belts for such occasions. We “called in the papacy” as Pop liked to say to vouch for our good character and willingness to reform. I saw a future of rosary beads and contritious acts a head of me.
When the bus bell rang, I dragged myself in the opposite direction of everyone else.
Detention was the same as going to church. I had to think about why I was disrespectful and how I was going to fix my behavior. I felt like Galileo confessing the world was still flat when he knew it wasn’t. But I didn’t succumb to my inner elders. I wrote my behavior blips would likely continue because that’s my nature. You wouldn’t expect a bear not to eat honey so don’t expect me not to say what’s on my mind. It’s an affliction I inherited from Granny Marnie, according to Grandpa.
There were seventh and eighth graders on the late bus, mostly boys from JV football practice. I’m not sure if one of them pulled my pony tail or if it got caught between the seats so I moved a few rows back. Some boy stood up in front of the bus with his back to us.
“Hey, this is what happens in lab when fat Annie grabs Freddie,” he said.
The boy began hugging himself moving his hands up and down his body like someone else was doing it. “Loser,” “Ew, hairy pig lips,” “Freddie, you wuss,” “Girly boy,” echoed all around me. Who was Freddie? I knew who Annie was and she wasn’t big except in those places where girls can’t help to be. The boy made loud lip-smacking sounds that made me feel what I’d done with Barbie was shameful and calculated.
Someone behind me started yelling about boobs. Not knowing if it was my anatomy they were referring to, or one of their teammates, I alighted the bus a stop early. I felt bad for Annie unknowingly reaching into that rat trap and for the unknown Freddie too. He’ll never get to choose who he kisses unless ten other fellas say it’s okay. Uncle Jimmy always said, whenever you want to figure things out just look for who has the most skin in the game. But this game doesn’t seem so fair. It reminded me of those witch trials in the textbooks when a few old men wearing Pilgrim hats had too much to say about how things should be done.
I walked down the dirt path from the bus stop through the woods to our neighborhood. This thin line of trees was a barrier between the fancy houses with streetlights and garages and our crabgrass estates. People from both sides dumped their grass clippings, old chairs, and anything else the garbage trucks wouldn’t take in there.
On the long stroll, I contemplated all the commotion my being late was about to cause. Mom would open and slam every kitchen drawer looking for a phantom pen to sign my detention note. I imagined the requisite shaming for dragging the O’Doul name through the mud again. Then I’d have the guilt tossed on me for saddling six younger siblings with the chore of trying to hoist us from the muck. I could see Pops pacing, worrying I spilled the beans and showed my teachers we were shanty Irish instead of lace curtain like he always wanted us to be.
Somnambulated by my thoughts, I stumbled over something on the pathway.
It was a paper bag that was kind of heavy so I knelt down to look inside it. There was a whole slew of 45’s still shiny and new in their paper sleeves.
Someone’s loss was my gain.
I followed the path into our backyard. Lights were on in every room. That meant our parents weren’t home and Magella had all her high school friends over.
I heard her shout from the swing set.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Records, I found in the woods,” I said proudly.
The swing set thumped and rocked to near falling over. The four-seat rocker looked like a ski lift filled with her oversized gangling pals.
“The brood is inside watching TV,” she said nodding toward the house. “Mom and Dad met the Mallory’s for dinner.”
As the rocker swung toward me, I told Magella all about detention but not my session with Miss Pembroke. She swatted my anxieties away even with two boys draped over her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll sign the pink slip. I got Mom’s autograph down to a T.”
Magella signed my note on top of the slide. “See no muss, no fuss,” she said, handing the slip back to me. Technically, it wasn’t lying as she was named after my Mother.
“You’re in charge of the clan now,” she said, pointing to the house. “Why don’t you check on the kids and play those records. It might be a blast.”
I threw a box of Ring Dings into the basement and counted all six red O’Doul heads as they squealed down the stairs after it. Then I opened all the windows in the house and the front door too. I loaded the 45’s onto Pops’ fancy stereo cabinet that looked big enough to bury me in. These were groups I never heard of – The Temptations, The Supremes, and the Four Tops.
I dropped the needle and waited like a regular pied piper.
It was getting dark as more and more kids were drawn by the music to our yard. They blended in with Magella’s friends wiggling, jumping, and shaking on our gravel driveway. Magella pulled me into the mass of wormy moving dancers.
“I kissed Barbie a whole bunch of times,” I blurted out, burying my head in Magella’s stomach as we danced.
“I kissed your doll. I guess we made out. Am I weird?”
“You’re weird baby, but not for kissing. If more people spent time kissing, they’d have less of it for fighting.”
“I just don’t fit in.”
“Sweetie, no one fits in anymore, we’re all just playing roles to get by.”
“What will Mom and Pop think?”
“It’s what you think that matters,” she said, pulling my chin up until our eyes met.
“It felt good,” I said, wiping my eyes, “to be the one doing and not the one waiting.”
“Well, baby doll, that’s all that matters,” said Magella with a big hug.
There was so much more I wanted to ask her about Barbie, ink blots, and all the sweaty stuff of life that was descending upon me. The blare of a siren unglued all of us from dancing.
An official county squad car roared into the driveway with its lights flashing. Out popped a real live policeman just like on TV. Everyone went silent, but My Girl played on until I was ordered to go inside and turn off that damn race music. Race music, I asked myself lifting the needle arm?
The patrolman threatened to write down all our names and put them on file in the station house. Then he’d tell our parents, teachers, and clergy just what kind of adults we were growing into. I watched all this from the relative safety of our front screen door that didn’t feel so safe anymore. Some kids were crying and others looked ashamed for whatever crime we’d committed. The officer was breaking up the crowd when old Mrs. Snelling shuffled across the street in her ratty pink robe and bath slippers.
“Damn kids, never listen, ya have no respect,” she squawked.
Waving her bony fist, she chided us for destroying the country her father built and for dragging it into the worst time ever. We’d all be lucky to reach age thirty at this rate.
I wanted to shout I kissed Barbie and the sky didn’t fall. Whatever we just did was only chapter twenty, or twenty-five, in the next social studies book. Somehow, we’ll survive the way we always do.
Instead, I stood in the doorway silent as Galileo after his trial and locked the screen door. I turned the music back on cranking the volume as high as it would go. Hands on hips, feet spread apart, I stood superhero style licking my lips waiting for the future to arrive.