Thursday, January 3, 2013

I'm not going to post every chapter of this particular book of mine. But -- here's the first. It's a novel called Seminole Girl (I know I mentioned it in my list of resolutions) about growing up in Pinellas County in the 60s and 70s. It's a lot of my memories, but it's not a memoir or autobiography or anything like that -- it's fiction hung on the bones of some things that I remember. Here's the first chapter... [I don't know why the last paragraph is spaced weird. It's not different in the original document and when I hit "Edit" here it looks normal. Gremlins.]

I was born in Clearwater in 1958. Clearwater is smack dab in the center of the west coast of Florida and the hospital had a dandy view of Clearwater Bay, although I have no memory of being impressed by the prospect. I have no memories of that time at all, of course. Folks who claim to possess memories of their births seem to me to be charlatans on the same level as those who attempt to palm off splinters of the cross of Christ or locks of Lincoln’s hair. Myself, I have a crystal clear memory of being in the stands just past first base when Bucky Dent hit the home run in the 1978 playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox. Only problem with that memory is that I’ve never been to Boston. Memories: never trust ‘em, not even if they’re yours.

The stories that follow are all based on what I remember of growing up in central Florida in the 60s and 70s. They’re my memories, so take ‘em with a handful of salt. I won’t swear on a stack of Bibles as to the veracity of any of them, no matter how clearly I remember that things happened in just this way.

My earliest memory is just a snippet: three or four seconds of action, no sound. I’m wearing underpants and nothing else and I’m sitting in a mud puddle at the end of our driveway in Orange Lake Village. Mama is striding purposefully toward me with a look on her face that is not one of pleasure or tenderness. And that’s it. Don’t get me wrong: I have lots of great memories of Mama. But that’s my first and I’m half naked in dirty water with punishment on the way, and all of that must be a metaphor for something.

We moved out of that tiny, two-bedroom house when I was five or six. Just up the road a couple of miles to a new subdivision which almost certainly had a name, but it’s been lost in the mists of time.

The houses grew out of the plowed-under remains of an orange grove. Gnarled trees still dotted property lines and the scent of orange blossoms hung in the air during the right time of the year, but the area was changing, groves decimated to make room for new subdivisions, new shopping centers, new roads of two, four, six lanes. Freezes made orange growing less profitable, less possible in Pinellas County, and progress demanded a better return on equity than the land could yield as a vast orchard. An untended mini-grove remained, however, at the entrance to the neighborhood. The trees still blossomed, still produced oranges that stayed green on the outside even though the insides were orange and sweet: juice oranges, they were, not the fancy eating oranges that folks grow out in California. The acreage eventually became a bank, but when I was seven years old the trees still stood.

Danny Kinnison built a treehouse in one of those black, twisted trees. Or as much of a treehouse as an orange tree could abide. Mainly a big piece of plywood with a few two-by-fours nailed up as railings. He’d just plopped it down in the spread-out branches of one of the grove denizens, not nailed in or tied or anything. Orange trees don’t grow particularly tall and their leaves grow densely, so there was no spectacular view from Danny’s masterpiece. Quite the opposite, actually—his point may have been to be hidden from the world, from everything.
The bus stop was right at the front of the old grove and I’d walk by those trees every day with my friends, never daring to wander back into the man-planted wilderness infested with citrus rats, feral cats, the occasional stray dog—and who knows what else. Danny was ahead of me in school, a bully, scary. Ten years old, he wielded power over those of us who were seven, eight, nine. He’d punch you or throw a rock at your head or demand that you hand over your bike so he could ride it around the block while you sat there hoping he’d bring it back. All the Kinnison boys—there were four of them—were rotten. The big ones taught the little ones, but Danny—third in line—had a special gift for meanness. One day Jamie told me, “I’m gonna climb up to Danny’s treehouse.”

Jamie was my younger brother, born exactly thirteen months after I made my appearance. Younger, but he had courage I lacked, the nerve to do what would never enter my head. I wanted grownups to like me, so I minded. Jamie wanted to be liked, too, but it had to come on his terms. What you saw was what you got and if you liked it, swell; if you didn’t, it was your loss. He was the cause of much of my worry; I would drill him on basic arithmetic on our way to the bus stop every morning. My great fear was that he’d never learn nine minus seven and therefore would be left behind. Jamie had no such concerns. He’d learn what he had to learn, but I mother-henned him as much as I could. He didn’t seem to mind, never seemed to learn. His sturdy legs would churn as he’d run circles around me, laughing, freckled, mischief in his soul. His hair, cut short by the clippers Mama would also use on the dog, was blonde back then, his eyes hazel.

“I talked to Danny and he said to come on up after school.”

I didn’t think it was such a good idea. Danny was trouble; word around the neighborhood was that his oldest brother had been sent to reform school. But Jamie was already disappearing into the grove, trotting determinedly through weeds and the husks of long-fallen fruit that had dropped, rotted, dried. I glanced at Sheri Alberici, my classmate and bus buddy. She was already half a block ahead of me. I sighed and turned to follow Jamie.

The air in the grove was sticky and cloyingly sweet with the scent of fallen, decaying oranges. I picked my way around gopher holes and moldy fruit and caught up with Jamie as he stood at the foot of Danny’s tree. Danny was already up there, perched like a sentinel on top of a guard tower. Nobody was going to catch him unawares.

“So are you comin’ up or what?” Danny snarled down at us. Jamie grabbed a branch and clambered up. I set down my math book and followed behind. I had a bad feeling about this but I was going to keep an eye on Jamie.

Orange trees are easy to climb, but they’re not comfortable trees in which to roost. Too many pokey branches, thorn-ish protuberances that don’t allow for reclining or even much sitting. You have to have a treehouse, really, if you’re going to spend much time sitting in citrus. I reached for a branch and hoisted myself up. My hand settled on the stub of an old limb that had been pruned off long ago. Jamie, not paying me any mind, shifted and set his foot down—right on the same spot that my fingers occupied. I let go but wasn’t holding on with the other hand. I didn’t fall far—maybe three feet—but I landed full force on my right arm and I heard something snap.

“You okay, Sis?” Jamie looked down at me from his perch halfway up to Danny’s den.

“I think I’m going to go.” I grabbed my book with my left hand, keeping my right arm close to my belly, and stumbled out of the grove. I made it to Sheri’s house, halfway home, before I couldn’t walk any farther. Sheri answered the door to my ring. “What’s the matter with you?”

“I fell out of a tree. I hurt my arm.” Like a cartoon character, stars encircled my head as I stood a moment on wobbly legs.

Sheri’s mother, Mrs. Alberici, appeared. One look and she sprang into action. “Come in, come in, Dolly. Sheri, get some juice.” My name isn’t Dolly—it’s Dorothy. Everybody called me Doro except for Mama who called me Dorothy. And Mrs. Alberici, who’d unilaterally made the decision to nickname me Dolly. I had been named for Dorothy Maria Steiner, Miss Florida 1957. I’m not sure what Mama was thinking—if she’d hoped I’d hit the pageant circuit one day or was just taken with the wide grin and wavy hair of Miss Steiner. Dorothy Maria did okay for herself and represented Florida well, coming in as the fourth runner-up in the following year’s Miss America Pageant. I often thought that I resembled my eponymous predecessor in that one way. I wasn’t beautiful or talented, but I could come in fifth place as well as anybody.

Short, almost as wide as she was tall, Mrs. Alberici had the faintest trace of an Italian accent. Her hair was short, straight, and black with a few gray strands. She wore it cut like a little girl, bobbed at the chin and held back with a headband or two barrettes. She made her own clothes and I never saw her in pants—only housedresses or nicer store-bought dresses for church. She stroked my hair and made cooing sounds, Italian whisperings and comfortings. She nestled me into a corner of the overstuffed green couch and settled a pillow underneath my arm.

Sheri brought me apple juice in a Flintstone’s grape jelly glass while her mother called Mama. I’d heard that if you could move your arm that meant it wasn’t broken. “See? I can move it.” I moved the whole arm from the shoulder, weirdly bent in an angle it had never held before. I thought I was going to be sick. I was afraid Mama would be angry if I’d really broken it.

Mrs. Alberici got a damp washcloth and held it to my forehead. “Don’t worry, bambina. Drink your juice. Your mama will be here very quick.” Suddenly I felt tired. I closed my eyes and leaned against the queen-sized softness of Mrs. Alberici’s midsection. And then Mama came, trundled me off to the Volkswagen, a bag of ice and a towel for my injury.

“Where is Jamie?” Mama asked.

“I don’t know.” Truthfully, I didn’t. Grandmama lived with us so she’d be home when Jamie finally got there. Mama wasn’t at all mad at me, I could tell. She looked like she was trying not to cry and when she hit a bump and I’d make a little moan she’d apologize and stroke my head. “Hang on, honey. We’re almost there. Daddy’s going to meet us.”

I had to spend the night in the hospital. They don’t do that sort of thing for a broken arm these days. My bed was next to a girl who had been in the hospital for three weeks. Car accident, she explained. She went into more detail about what was wrong with her but I didn’t understand most of what she was telling me. She’d really settled into her area of the ward, though, with pictures, a stack of books, and an in with the nurses who brought her extra desserts.

I’d never even had my blood pressure taken before and now all sorts of things were happening around me. They knocked me out to set my arm, broken in three places. I awoke to find myself the proud owner of a spanking white cast, a blank canvas that would soon be covered with scribbles, autographs, and dirt. I slept fitfully, missing Mama, in pain, scared. She came and got me in the morning, took me home, parked me on the couch with pillows, a new coloring book and a new box of crayons.

“But Mama, I can’t color.” I'm right-handed.

“Sure you can, Dorothy. Hold the crayon with your left hand.”

I went through a brief period of ambidexterity while I had that cast. I could print as well with my left hand as with my right; I lost the ability when the cast came off and I reverted to my natural handedness. That coloring book was the beginning of my ability to do things with my left hand. It was also the beginning of a parade of gifts from friends and relatives who were determined to make me feel better by giving me knickknacks and pieces of candy.

Dianna Walter lived across the street and she brought me a large, old ballerina pin. Probably three inches tall, I was sure it was very valuable and I thanked her gravely. She drew a heart on my cast with “DLW” inside and told me that she’d bring me any homework that I would otherwise have missed.

Linda White, who lived around the corner, brought me a Beauty and the Beast comic book and a Hershey bar. The Hershey bar was my favorite present of all and disappeared the fastest. She wrote “Linda!” with a pink crayon right on the inside of the elbow of the cast.

Jamie was nice to me for a whole week, which up until then was a record for us to have gone without fighting. He felt guilty for stepping on my fingers and making me fall, but guilt can only restrain the total depravity of a six-year-old boy for so long. He signed my cast with an ugly black marker and did it in big letters, taking up too much room.

When I was finally taken to have the cast removed I was scared out of my mind. The saw was LOUD and every time they’d touch my cast with it I’d flinch and jump. When I jumped my arm made contact with the saw; supposedly it cut the cast by vibrating and not spinning so it wouldn’t cut people. It was sure doing something to me, though, and when they sawed and I jumped, it hurt and I’d holler. Mama DID cry then and they took her out of the room and made her put her head between her knees and brought her smelling salts. When they got the cast off there was a bright thin line of blood the length of my arm. I was indignant: won’t cut people, huh? I wanted them to apologize. No one did.

I had two more casts after that and while the removal got better each time it was always an ordeal. Kind of like when you take a dog to the vet to have him neutered and then you have to drag or carry him inside for each subsequent visit. I went to the beach once, too, and a little bit of salt water splashed inside of my cast and by the time they cut it off it stank to high heaven. The nurse held her nose and pointed to a sign on the wall. It read “Thou shalt not get thy cast wet.” I’d blown right through that commandment, a harbinger of things to come. 

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