The Girl Who Laughed Into the Palm of Her Hand

6 Dec

In the second grade, I met a girl who I’ll call Lilly; a brunette, she sported a tomboyish haircut and was blessed with high cheekbones, always ruddy from the sun. Though she smiled a lot, she muffled her laughter into the palm of her hand. In our class, Lilly earned the distinction of being the fastest runner.

But for Lilly, I would have never fallen in love with softball; a game I proved very sorry at playing, and so learned, that you can be bad at something and enjoy it nonetheless. Lilly explained matter-of-factly: “It’s almost like baseball, but since we [girls] can’t play that, they let us play softball.” I’d already tried cheerleading and ballet, and proved worthless at both. The ballet instructor said I was distracted and not cut-out. Ecstatic, I secretly cheered; ballet was as much fun as picking weeds.

Lilly brought a paper to school with all the information about the girl’s softball league in Ocoee- a neighboring town. My mother took one look at it and said no can do! Practices were several times a week with games on the weekend  – too much hassle. Lilly had a solution, “My mama will drive you,” she assured me without even asking her mama. I thought she was nuts; after all, she had five sisters to keep her mama busy. I was dumfounded when, the next day, she confirmed that her mama agreed.

I asked my mother if Lilly’s mama could be my chauffeur, which required providing her first and last name. I’d only seen her from a distance, a petite, slightly pudgy woman with Farah Fawcett hair, only shorter. She always wore boot-leg jeans atop sneakers, and a t-shirt.

In a small town, of course, my mother knew of the woman, but I was surprised to discover that Lilly’s daddy worked under my father’s management, seasonally, in the orange groves. A man without an immigration problem who worked seasonally was likely a drunk.

At seven and 1/2 I already knew that there were two kinds of drunkards – no good boozers and functioning alcoholics. No good boozers let their liquor interfere with their livelihoods, whereas functioning alcoholics showed up to work {blood shot eyes, but still working}. The later always garnered more sympathy than the former. Lilly’s daddy was a boozer, but since he had the distinction of being docile and working hard when he did sign on, he was put into a rare, third category – alcoholics who neither harmed nor benefitted society. A melancholy drunk.

I don’t know why my parents agreed, but they let me sign up for softball, provided Lilly’s mama drove me back and forth. Maybe I begged them incessantly, or maybe they just didn’t see any harm. After all, if we barred all the so-called “struggling” people in our midst, we wouldn’t have even been able to stand our own company.

Something else, though, made it extra-ordinary, something that is hard to be honest about, but you well know is the norm the world over, not the exception. What they called, dirt poor, did not socialize with working class, which is where our family fell. Working class people could cohort with upper class and vica versa, but neither had any dealings with dirt poor, unless it was direct, hand-to-hand charity. So, the extreme unlikelihood that I would ever be paired with Lilly for the two years that we were together is something that defies my understanding, from every angle. Still, it happened, and not in a dream. I remember many of my Lilly days, though the ending of our story is as sparse and convoluted in my mind as the memory of my own beginning.

Like most childhood friendships, ours evolved in as much time as it takes to shell a bucket of peas. As the relationship deepened, my mother would come out and speak to Lilly’s mama and occasionally invited her in. My daddy called her mama, “Sugar,” and made her laugh, just like everyone else who came to our yard. When she did that her shoulders shook, her head flew back, exposing back molars, and she’d slap him on the back. I always wished my mother would laugh at my father’s jokes like that.

During softball practice and at games, Lilly’s mama was always there cheering me on, which must have been hard to do because I was about as coordinated as a lizard on a greased porch railing, and even worse, I was dead scared of the ball flying near my head. My strategy, as an outfielder, when a fly ball soared through the air was to duck with my arms over my head like a crazed shooter was on the loose. Then, I’d pop my head up, gopher the ball, and throw it to the in-field. No matter, Lilly’s mama took me under her wing; between that, and Double Bubble Gum, all was well in the world of softball.

Lilly, on the other hand, was fearless on the field, so it surprised me when I invited her to a sleep-over at my house and she refused, confiding that she was too scared to sleep away from home. On the one night I managed to convince her, she was so petrified, she wet the bed. That was the end of that, she never came again. On the other hand, I slept at Lilly’s frequently.

The first time her mama came to pick me up in their faded, brown car, I (always) got a kick out of Lilly’s littlest sisters crouching on the floor board to make more room. All the way, I bounced up and down on the vinyl seat, so happy to be with Lilly and her sisters. Just on the outskirts of town, we pulled into a trailer park, which stopped me from bouncing, and made me affix my eyes to the car window like a tourist on an exotic vacation tour. Lilly’s mama slowed down over the unpaved, dusty road. Skinny dogs ran from under their owners’ trailers, forced back with chain gangs, yelping over the loud engine. Throngs of trailers on either side lined the way, some in better shape than others. Lilly’s home was the last trailer on the right side of the two lane park; baby-blue with white stripes running lengthwise, and held up by cinder blocks, definitely one of the shabbier ones. It backed up to a running creek and was towered over by large oak trees, so that no matter the time of day, the light was always obscured.

Once inside, I surveyed the strange wonder. On the immediate right, by the entrance, was the parent’s bedroom and on the opposite end was the girls’ bedroom. It had two queen-sized beds, shared by all six daughters, plus a long, oak dresser and an armoire made of plywood. There was one bathroom down the tiny path of aisle leading to the back bedroom. It was half covered with linoleum and half-exposed. There was a toilet there, but it did not flush. A bag was made ready for used paper and the flushing was done manually with a bucket of water from the bathtub, stained orange from the well water. There were no windows as it backed up to the tiny kitchen on the other side. A small living room contained two faux-suede couches decorated with windmills and country manors. I could get from one side of the trailer to the other in seven good skips.

As quickly as we went inside we left to go run wild outside, while Lilly’s mama prepared dinner. There were only patches of grass in her yard, it was mostly bald and dirt-packed. After a while Lilly’s mama called us in and we huddled around the black and white speckled diner-style table, trimmed with chrome. The meal was pan-fried steak, mashed potatoes, carrots, and purple Kool-Aid. I’d never eaten a steak cooked on a skillet, or even a steak prepared by a woman. My daddy always grilled them. I noticed that these steaks were also thin, resembling country ham. I cut up a piece, and put it in my mouth, chewed, and chewed…and chewed for a very long time. Each sister was gobbling down her portion while Lilly’s mama sat on a tall stool, without a plate, looking over like a nurse ready to respond to any of her daughters’ need.

My jaws were becoming very sore, as I began to panic about the wad of meat in my mouth. How should I dispose of it discreetly with so many watchful eyes?  Prickly heat spread over my body along with perspiration on my upper lip and forehead. The room was spinning and I felt like I had my tongue stuck in a Chinese finger trap.

My hazy mind was sharpened when laughter erupted among the whole lot of them – uproarious,  causing Lilly’s mama to tilt off her stool, and one younger sister to fall out of her chair. Lilly held her laughter in the palm of her hand. Only the wispy blond-haired baby, the only blond in the bunch, looked as stupefied as me.

“You ain’t never had poor man’s steak, I can see!,” Lilly’s mama howled.

I didn’t know how to respond, but out of relief I stopped chewing. I couldn’t say “No ma’am,” because that would be insulting so I just stayed silent. Finally the tremor of laughter died down.

“That’s alright, you don’t have to eat poor man’s steak if you don’ wanna’,” she assured me.

I put the full force of my concentration on the round, plastic plate in front of me, and dipped my spoon into the milky, white mound of mashed potatoes, after which Lilly’s mama discretely piled more and more until I had my full. Later she made Jiffy Pop and we watched T.V. The images were slippery and grainy. With a small living room and six kids, it didn’t seem any trouble flipping through the three channels and adjusting the antennae without a remote.

Lilly’s daddy never came home.

But, I would see him from time to time, like an illusion, suddenly he appeared, though his presence did not fill the house like my own father’s. He did not say much, though he would always ask about my daddy and told me to pass along his greeting, which I never remembered to do. Sometimes he would tell me a funny story about my daddy, to which I always raised two eye-brows out of respect, but they never impressed me because it was common wherever I went. People liked to tell me how funny he was. Yeah, I know, was the common refrain to myself.

Meanwhile, Lilly and I never exchanged daddy stories. She knew my daddy was a funny man and I knew hers was a drunk, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to talk about facts as obvious as the State capital. What our shared imagination spun was much more fascinating over countless hours of make-believe. I had found my little girl soul mate.

One suffocating, hot day Lily said: “You wanna go ring an old lady’s doorbell?”

“What for?” I asked.

“Cause’ she can’t hear a thing, not even a church organ! She can just hear with her eyes,” said Lilly, while shoving both of her index fingers into her eye sockets for emphasis.

Lilly had peaked my interests, “How can she hear with eyes?,” I asked.

“Her whole house is wired. If you ring her bell it sends off blue lights- all over, then she’ll get up and answer, cept’ if she’s sleepin,’ then you gotta wait a long time. She’s super old!”

“O.K.,” I perked up, “Let’s go, ” and away we ran.

“You push it!,” Lilly said, giving me the honors.  I was a little hesitant; what good reason did we have to ring the old lady’s door bell except to see if she would answer? Maybe she would knock us down with a cane?

“Just do it!,” Lilly assured me, so, I did and we waited, but no one answered. It was pitifully anti-climatic. We came back a half a dozen times until she finally answered, without a cane and with a big smile on her face.

This is my friend, mouthed Lilly, and she placed her hand on her heart and then placed it on mine. Lilly pointed to her eye then wiggled all 10 of her fingers up in the air like flashes of lights, or at least that’s what she meant to convey, and the old woman understood.

She enthusiastically gestured for us to come in. Lilly stood outside and rang the doorbell non-stop while I looked in amazement at the blue lights blinking around her home, in the most unexpected places- like Easter eggs. I found myself wishing that my home was equipped with that feature…for what, I hadn’t a clue. Lilly made out a few more statements which the woman seemed to understand, and of which I was clueless, then we set off to some other destination in the trailer park.

Another day, when the flies were particularly annoying, humming around the watermelon rinds, and having explored as much wildlife as could be found in the creek, and tossed the softball till we grew weary of its weight in our gloves, and journeyed to untold imaginary places, Lilly suddenly perked up: “You wanna go to church?!,” she blurted out, like asking if I wanted to go to Disney World.

“They give out cookies and juice, and sometimes candy, and they tell good stories!”

All of my short life had been invested as a somber Methodist, and I’d just reached the age when I was expected to go sit in a pew from time to time and behave. Bearing this in mind, I tried to make sense of Lilly’s sincere enthusiasm.

The next morning her eldest sister fit me into one of their dresses. I had no choice but to wear my mud caked tennis shoes, and for that reason alone, hesitated. I’d never attended church without stockings and black Mary-Janes, which always made my feet feel like they were melting under a heat lamp in the Florida sun. I wasn’t sure if it was blasphemous to walk into the Lord’s house on a Sunday without the proper footwear, but Lilly assured me that some kids even came in jeans and flip-flops, “So, you’ll be fine.” Now I really had to see this church!

In order to get to church we had to catch a church bus at the entrance to the trailer park which was another novelty for me. Lilly’s mama told us to behave, and sent us off, staying behind with her baby and youngest toddler. Before long a short bus, bearing a painted, shining cross, smiling children and a white Jesus, came rolling up. The whole lot of us, unchaperoned children, piled on. A middle-aged woman served as the attendant – her hair that had been frozen solid with a can of Aqua Net, and a clear orange line of makeup ran down her jaw line. She was a happy one, clapping and leading us in songs about Jesus that we never sang at the Methodist church. Lilly knew a lot of them which made me jealous and feeling left out. It seemed this woman’s only job was to pump us up for what was to come, a sneak preview. The driver just sailed ahead, unphased.

Lilly’s church was worlds away from any religious experience I’d ever had. Looking back, I count this as my first exposure to another faith. Though both of the Christian orientation, Lilly’s church was plain different. The congregation sang hymns, but in high and low voices, out of sync, and danced in place, looking exactly like my father jerking his legs and arms in a hallelujah grip, lip-synching Ray Charles,’ ‘I Got A Woman.’ The preacher was the most peculiar sight. He couldn’t seem to stay put on the pulpit; in fact, he made it look obsolete. Sporting a blue polyester, three piece suit, he walked back and forth furiously, from one side of the church to the other. From time to time, for no apparent reason, the congregation would cry out “AMEN!” in staggered, yet powerful crescendos. I tried it too: “Amen!” It was not hard to stay awake and pay attention in Lilly’s church.

She was right that some people wore jeans and other casual clothes, but most striking about the congregation was that they were mixed. I’d only ever prayed alongside people of my own race and I’d never given much thought to any other way. Lilly’s church planted a seed deep within me, one which many, many years later would eventually give rise to a comforting voice in the loneliness of my heartache and thirst, it said: There are other ways, many other ways- be bright, sing high, and don’t settle for inheritance, no matter how much it promises you, when it comes to belief.

I wish I could tell you how my story ends with Lilly. I have looked for her in my mind, time and again, hoping beyond hope to find a morsel of our last days together. I have come up dry every time. I do know that she moved away and then came back again, but I don’t remember ever saying goodbye, Lilly, or thank you.

Many years later I was with my father volunteering at a ‘Toys for Tots’ campaign in the youth center. The volunteers were tasked with taking the participants around the room, whereby they picked out one toy for each child in their family. Doing this job made me feel very grownup, and on a mission, though I was all of about sixteen years old. As the line progressed I saw Lilly’s mama waiting for a turn, looking older than I remembered her.

Maybe you think I ran up to hug her neck or say ‘I missed you,’ but I did none of that. I slipped behind a corner wall and hung there for a time, my heart beating rapidly. I wanted the wall to suck me in. Then, my father came looking for me. Of course, he had to show me Lilly’s mama, had to have me properly greet her. I inquired about Lilly who she said was doing just fine, and that her older sister had already married. She had four tickets in her hand, for her younger children still remaining. That was her Christmas; meanwhile, I was expecting my first car that year. The stark, shrieking contrast lulled my outward speech into superficial words and gestures.

The thought of walking Lilly’s mama around while she picked up her small gifts made me feel recreant and cringe. I hoped my father wouldn’t suggest…and of course, he didn’t. He just wanted me to pay my respects and then he walked away with her; slowly they strolled around the semi-circle of packages and I watched. I saw her laugh, her shoulders shake, and her head fly back as I clicked my tongue to keep the tears deep, deep in the well of my belly.

Still more years later I heard that one of Lilly’s uncles won the lottery – a big jackpot, but my source did not know whatever became of Lilly or where she lived. The news made me smile for the rest of the day. Since then, whenever I picture Lilly, I see her under perpetual sunshine, in a comfortable home with a swimming pool and acres of land for her children to run and play on. I have no hard evidence to substantiate this claim. It is all in my imagination which is, after all, the sanctuary where Lilly and I lived most of the time.

May Allah cover you in His unfathomable Love and Light, Lilly, wherever the sun rises on your mornings.

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3 Responses to “The Girl Who Laughed Into the Palm of Her Hand”

  1. hilthethrill December 6, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    This was riveting writing and should be published. It brought tears to my eyes because I could just feel so much for you and Lily and her mom. Bravo!

  2. CollardGreenMuslim December 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    I take your comment to heart and I’m glad I could write a piece to do justice to the kindness of this family and the warmth they brought into my life. Thank you for coming by!

  3. Williams May 6, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Great blog you’ve got here.. It’s difficult to find excellent
    writing like yours nowadays. I honestly appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!

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