A Little Girl Again
The old black man crept inside of my dream again last night. He looked the same. His body was still scrawny and gnarled like a string bean. And his eyes-Jesus-his intense brown eyes still seemed to burn my thin skin like paper. At first glance, those feelings of shame, guilt, and fear flooded my mind, as I awoke somewhere in the night, soaked in sweat and gasping for air. My strained voice cried out for my mother in the darkness. But she did not come. We had parted a long time ago; she was no longer just around the corner. And now, as I sit here, waiting for you, who will not come, the memory of the old black man has ascended into my mind once again. He’s a part of me somehow. It’s hard to explain. It stems back to the early days of my youth, a time and place far away, yet not forgotten.
When I think of the home town of my youth, all I seem to remember are Miami’s palm trees stretching towards the blue clouds on a warm July evening-a brilliant splash of orange in the sky as the sun sets, and the old black man in a fit of rage. Whenever the memory of him flashes across my mind, a strange nostalgia comes with it and remains long after the picture has faded. I see him there. His brown callused hands waving frantically in the air, his chapped lips set in a deep frown, his eyes alight with rage. I remember him vividly now as I desperately pass the time waiting for you. It reminds me of the waiting that was the pitiful background music of my adolescence.
When I was eleven my mother received a transfer to Miami from her airport job in Houston. I was confused about the move. But my mother assured me that Miami was a good place to raise a child like myself. She said in the shores of the Miami beaches the Atlantic Ocean came to a complete stop, because it knew it was home. She said Miami’s palm trees swayed like painted dancers in the sky and the air smelled like honey all the time. In those days, she seemed always to know exactly what to say to put my mind at ease. And so in the fall of 1993, my mother and I moved into Miami’s Lakeside Apartment Complex with our eyes set on the world. I don’t know what it was we hoped to find there; certainly not riches from my mother’s nine-to-five airport job. Nor did we wait for my mother’s hard work to pay off in shining success as the promised American Dream, for we knew better than that, too. Perhaps we were waiting for a miracle to rise up in our lives like the limbs of a tree rising into the sky, to finally make us truly happy together, without my father. But God was stingy with his miracles in those days, and so we just waited.
I remember that year when I confronted the old man a strange restlessness of body and spirit, a feeling that something old was ending, and something new was beginning. One day so clearly returns to me for some reason. The familiar faces of my friends often drift into my mind as I recall that day so long ago. I was climbing the great oak tree that was in our tiny backyard when my neighborhood friends stumbled into my world.
“Kelly!” a tiny boy named Craig yelled. He always yelled instead of talking. His friend Anthony told me that Craig was a little sensitive about his height and just wanted to make sure he was heard; he was heard all right. “Hey, Kelly! What you doing way up there?”
I reluctantly looked down from my private world. “What do y’all want?” I shouted as I looked at them huddled together. Craig was scratching a red mosquito bite on his elbow. Mike and Anthony were trading baseball cards like always. Craig’s little sister Amy was kicking something on the ground with her shiny white Keds and twisting her tangled black hair into knots, while my best friend Junior stood still, looking up at me with an arrogant smirk on his face. He and I had been friends for some time now. He was the first person I befriended when I came to Miami. One night, as I emptied the trash at the nearby dumpster, he jumped out and made me scream.
“What the hell?” I yelled.
“Oh, sorry...did I scare ya?”
“Yeah Sherlock, you did. Why were you back there anyways?”
“Same reason you was. I was taking out the trash.”
“Well you should of threw yourself in there too,” I snapped back. He flashed me a bright smile and lit a cigarette. I remember the moon’s light illuminating his dark green eyes as the cigarette smoke floated towards Heaven. The look in his eyes reminded me of the zealous look in Dracula’s eyes before he devoured his victims. Standing next to him my skin went cold and my heart began to pound. I took a steady breath. There was something dangerous about him, yet beautiful at the same time. I had never felt that way before. I did not know whether it was love or fear, or perhaps, as I think about him now, it was a little bit of both. I remembered Junior’s dark green eyes as I sat perched on the limb of that oak tree, staring down at him, that day so long ago.
“How come you always going up dem trees?” Junior asked.
“I don’t know. How come you always riding that red bike twenty four seven?” He grinned, pulled his Miami Dolphins’ cap lower on his head, and shrugged.
“I like it I guess,” he said.
“Well I like climbing trees,” I said. “Now do you have any other bright questions?”
“You two cut it out. What ya’ll want to do today?” yelled Craig.
The truth was we were growing tired of the endless summer. The freedom that was common during the bright Spring mornings and afternoons had transformed into a desperate effort to fill up the long, hot empty days of summer. We were bored and restless, and hungry for change.
“Let’s go play with some tadpoles by the lake,” Anthony suggested.
Junior was scornful. “We did that yesterday. I’m tired of looking at those damn tadpoles,” he said. A brief argument followed dealing with the importance of examining tad poles. Mike was adamant in his belief that tadpoles were in fact a new undiscovered species, while Craig yelled out, “They’re just freakin’ frogs Mike!” Anthony suggested that we examine earthworms instead, and Amy laughed. “Next thang you’ll want to do is examine ants Anthony.” After this intelligent debate, we finally concluded that examining tadpoles just wasn’t fun anymore.
“Tell you what,” said Junior finally, his eyes sparkling. “Let’s go over to the old playground.”
The idea caught on at once, because we always had fun at the old playground. The others congratulated Junior, pounding his scrawny back. Wincing in pain, he hollered, “Cut it out.”
Way up high, I hesitated a moment in the tree, while the others called for me to come down. The sun’s magnificent light dripped like honey on top of my sweaty head as I rested my face on the rough bark.
“You comin’ or not, Kell,” yelled Junior.
A part of me wanted to stay in my private world forever, without the interference of the others. But another part, an unfamiliar part, scolded me for being too silly sometimes. So I slapped my thighs, sighed, and jumped from the tree. My feet hit the ground hard.
“I gotta tell my mom first,” I yelled at them as I ran home. My mother was in the kitchen, over the oven, stirring a fresh batch of macaroni with creamy cheese sauce. I licked my lips.
“Smells good mom,” I said. Her brown eyes focused on my disheveled state as she shook her head.
“Why you tracking mud and all kinds of stuff in my house?” she thundered. “Where you been today? Up in those trees again?” My fingers began to fumble the loose string on my T-shirt. I could never keep anything from my mother; she knew me better than anyone did. At last I looked up, crinkled my guilty face, and batted my long lashes.
“Yeah, I was up there ma.”
“What did I tell you Kelly? What did I tell you?”
“That I could get hurt up in a tree, that I could fall and break something in a tree, that trees are not good for me, cause-cause I can get hurt.” My hand darted to the cooking pot. She slapped it away.
“This ain’t ready yet. But yeah, I said that stuff about the trees and I meant it,” she said. “Now git and let me work. Today is my only day off. Steer clear from those woods Kelly, ya hear?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said reluctantly. I didn’t like lying to her but the others were waiting on me, and if I told her the truth she would try to stop me. She looked at me and smiled, then rumpled my hair.
“You’re a good girl Kelly,” she said. Her long fingers sunk into my wavy hair.
“Mah! Stop!” I giggled.
“All right now,” she replied. “Git!” I hugged myself, as a tumble of emotions washed over me. A part of me felt bad about lying to my mother, but another part snickered triumphantly inside. I shrugged, opened our front door, and ran towards my friends.
On our way to the old playground my lips hissed as I sucked on the salty sunflower seeds I had hidden in my jeans’ pocket. Gray squirrels surrounded us, searching through the grass for hickory nuts and the blue jays sat high in their trees, hopping from branch to branch. The sun was hot on my head, and my collar scratched my throat. I sighed heavily.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Junior.
“Nuthin...I was just thinking about something,” I replied. I spat out a sunflower seed.
“‘Bout what?” asked Amy. I looked at her and smiled. I wanted to tell them that I was wondering how things would be like next summer, when my mother’s job transfer would once again take us to another time and place, far away from Miami’s Lakeside Apartments Complex, and into the unknown territory of Macon, Georgia.
But for a twelve year old to have those thoughts in her head were silly, and so I just cracked a watery smile and said, “Nuthin.”
“Hey look at ‘er!” shouted Anthony. When the playground came into view, we stopped and looked in awe. The sun’s light seemed to hit the tiny playground at a perfect angle, creating streaks of red and orange high up in the sky. I remember that beyond the dusty playground, rose a great palm tree, surrounded by bright blossoms, clumped together in little mounds. There was something in the tallness of the tree that transformed the ugliness of the place into something beautiful. It reinforced my courage, and I ventured closer.
“Wait up ya’ll,” whispered Anthony.
“What is it,” Junior asked.
“Nuthin. But y’all sure this a good idea,” Anthony said as he slapped a mosquito on his ear.
“Stop being a freakin scaredy cat Ant. It’s just a playground. Its not like some secret government project or somethun,” said Craig as he crossed his arms against his chest. Embarrassed, Anthony buried his hands in his jeans pockets and kicked a broken twig. Then he flashed a fake smile.
“Oh-all-all right,” he stammered. “I ain’t mean nuthin by it...really.”
The playground rested behind a large apartment building that belonged to another complex. It was an old playground; with old wooden swings and old, rusted monkey bars. The boards of the tiny ferris wheel creaked often and the plastic pretend donkey was covered with dust and ants all the time. Despite its ancientness and it’s constant creaking, we liked the playground. It was a good way to pass the time. But our real fun and our real fear lay in the big, red sign that said NO TRESPASSING, VIOLATORS WILL BE PUNISHED. There was something about being on forbidden land that did something to us. It made us feel more alive...more real. I stood there looking at it and could feel a mischievous expression rise on my face.
“Snap out of it Kelly,” said Junior as he pulled my ponytails and snapped his long fingers in my face. I crinkled my forehead and began to chase him towards the swings. Our laughter sliced the thin, summer air.
“Keep it down Kell,” whispered Junior. “You don’t want Dark Vador to hear us.” I peered at the patio behind the playground, and licked my lips in angst. No one was looking through the blinds; the coast was clear. We didn’t know who actually lived in the apartment, so we nicknamed the mysterious person “Dark Vador.”
“I call the first swing,” I whispered.
“I call the second,” said Junior with glee. Mike and Craig jumped on the monkey bars and Amy just sat on the pretend plastic donkey, slowly moving to and fro. She reminded me of the little clown that jumped out of jack the boxes, swinging left and right. Soon after Anthony resumed his familiar behavior, complaining about how he never got the opportunity to swing on the swings. Tears of happiness filled my eyes as I began to swing higher and higher into the sky. I felt like the whole world lay ahead of me; out there in the wide world, there were endless possibilities. Suddenly a voice from below shattered my perfect moment.
“Come on y’all,” commanded Junior. I was so lost in my swinging and daydreaming that I didn’t notice he had gotten off his swing and was now walking towards the patio. I jumped off the swing. My feet hit the ground and I struggled to catch my breath. We looked at him in awe.
“Junior...what the hell you doin?” whispered Anthony with a wild look in his mahogany eyes. Junior cursed and spat on the ground, one of his phony impressions of John Wayne in a western movie.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m checking out what Dark Vador has over here on his balcony. Come on, chicken shits,” he said.
“You’ll get us caught,” said Anthony as he crept to a nearby bush. The others followed Junior. I just stood there by the swing, watching, torn between wanting to join the adventure and feeling awkward at the same time. It all seemed a little silly to me, and a little scarey.
“You scared too Kell?” Said Junior with a twinkle in his eyes. I cursed under my breath and sneered. Then I lifted my chin, puffed out my chest, and said, “Nah I ain’t scared.” I often wonder now whether we all were a little afraid, but just too scared to admit our fear. We crept to the edge of the bushes that bordered the patio and peered over. A long row of old flower pots and a rusted bike lay on the patio. Junior bent down and picked up a gray pot.
“Why the hell does Dark Vador have so many pots?” he asked, shaking his head.
“I dunno,” replied Amy. “Maybe he just likes plants or something.” Junior held the pot up high. I felt my eyes sparkle in the sunlight as I realized what he was about to do. I grabbed his t-shirt and pulled.
“Don’t, Junior,” I said.
“Do it, Junior,” chanted Mike and Craig.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Amy whispered to me. Junior locked gazes with me, his face enlivened by that handsome boyish smile, I knew all too well.
“It’s just a flower pot, Kell,” he said as he let go and it smashed to the ground. Craig’s voice roared with excitement and Junior waved his hands in the air with glee.
“And the crowds go wild!” shouted Junior. Then Craig kneeled down and picked up a pot and threw it down. Reluctantly, Mike and Anthony did the same.
“Try it Kell,” said Anthony as he pushed me towards the patio. Tentatively, I picked up a small pot that had a sunflower growing in it, and cradled it close to my chest. I took a few steps back and collided into a tree. The hard bark scratched my smooth skin as I looked out at the others. I felt something wet and sticky on my arm. I hoped it wasn’t blood. Suddenly an unexpected voice came from the patio.
“Who out there?”
We all ducked into the bushes. An old black man’s backside came into view as he stepped onto the small patio. He turned around and his sharp, beady eyes surveyed the playground. I crouched down lower in the bushes, where I heard the stifled giggles of the others. I motioned for them to be quiet, yet let out a strangled, nervous laugh myself. The old man gazed warily across the playground for a moment, and then cautiously took a step closer to the swings. The ground crunched as he stepped on the broken pot material. He bent and gently touched the remains of his fallen pots. Then he stood up, erect, ready to battle.
“Who did this?” The old black man barked. “Show yourself out there. This here is no trespassing land ya hear?” Junior let out a strangled laugh.
“I hear ya out there. I hear ya. You’ll pay for this. You damn brats!” shouted the old black man. He shuffled closer to the swings. His entire body shook with rage as he saw another pile of broken pots. I cradled the small pot against my chest. The old man’s anger frightened me, yet enraged me at the same time. Who was he to yell at us like that; they were just flower pots and this was just an old playground, nothing more. We didn’t do anything wrong. Led by Junior, the others suddenly leaped from behind the bushes and rushed towards the old man.
“Dark Vador...whatcha going to do!” yelled Junior as he kicked pebbles of broken pot towards the old man, just before he dashed through the woods. The other boys swarmed around the old man like a pack of bees. And Amy just stood there; twisting her ponytails, as tears slowly fell from her eyes.
“I wanna go home Craig,” she wept to her big brother. “I wanna-”
“Git! Git!” shouted the old man with a frantic wave of his arms. “Ya’ll don’t belong here! Git!” I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Everything and everyone was moving too fast. Amy’s wild cries of fear and the old man’s frantic shouting pounded in my mind; a powerful headache rung like a bell in my head. I crinkled my sweaty face in pain. Lost in a jumble of chaotic emotions I charged from the bushes, holding the flower pot high, waving it in the old man’s face. Our laughter hung thick in the summer air as we watched the old man in vain reach for his pot. Amy’s cries added fuel to my fire.
“Shut up Amy!” I screamed. My entire body felt like it was dipped in a sea of fire, as the others urged me to drop it. I hurled the pot high in the air; it burst into the summer sky like a firecracker. Then my eyes drifted back to earth and gazed at the old man in fear. I expected to see rage in his eyes; some indication that he was going to do something awful to us. But all I saw was sadness in his tired eyes as he bent down to pick up the remains of his old pot. In that moment, he had changed somehow. He was no longer the mysterious Dark Vador that we taunted and feared. He was just an old man; a tired old man. It was an odd feeling. The world no longer seemed a bright, sunny place in that moment. With this realization, I dashed into the woods, leaping over muddy ditches and sharp twigs, as I followed the others home. I did not join in the laughter when we gathered again in our apartment complex. Suddenly I was ashamed, and I did not like being ashamed. The child in me sulked and said it was all for fun, but the woman in me flinched at the thought of being involved in a malicious attack, even if it was just throwing flower pots. He was just an old man. He never did anything to us.
My mood lasted all night. I dreamed that I was trapped in a tree and the old black man was throwing stones at me from below. Suddenly, I lost my balance and went tumbling to the earth. I woke up from my nightmare drenched in sweat calling for my mother. She was at the kitchen table, budgeting her checkbook. When she saw me she rubbed her brow anxiously.
“What you doing up?” She asked with a yawn. I gave her a lop-sided smile and sat on her lap.
“You too big to sit on me like that,” she said in strict voice. I moved to rise, but she held me down, and pulled me closer. “Nah, its okay. You can stay just a little longer.” Suddenly tears fell from my heavy eyelids as I looked down. I didn’t want to look in her eyes. Something inside of me was afraid of what I might see there: disappointment, perhaps. I wanted to be an adult and tell her about my mistakes, but I was too afraid and too ashamed to do so. The outlines of her fingertips traced my tears, carefully. I buried my face in her neck.
“Whats wrong chile?” She asked. I sat there in her lap, torn between wanting to confess my wickedness and too afraid to do so. My shoulders shook violently. “Now, now, it can’t be that bad. You going to tell me whats wrong or you going to sit here all night and cry.” I tried to clear my throat but found I could barely speak.
An unfamiliar heaviness fell upon me as I started to say something, stopped, and then said with my head bowed, “I just had a bad dream...that’s all.” She laughed quietly, and motioned for me to follow her to my room. In my bedroom, against the silhouette of the moon, she resembled an angel as she handed me a cold glass of milk. I sipped it and smiled. Then she moved to click my pink lantern off and whispered, “It’s over now. No need to be afraid anymore.” I lay there, staring back at her.
Her words had no effect. That night the dream returned vividly. In my vision the old black man’s eyes stared silently at me as I mouthed I’m sorry in vain. The words never came out.
The years have taken me a world away from that time and place, from the tall Miami palm trees and the endless summer days, and from the old black man’s flower pots that we destroyed for no reason at all that day. I never went back to the old playground and many years have passed since I last saw the others. Yet, there are times when the image of my mother standing beside my bed and the old black man’s sad eyes rise in my mind like a tidal wave. Those feelings of shame, fear, and regret sweep across my heart as I realize it was at that moment I knew nothing would ever be the same.
The world had gained boundary lines. My mother was no longer the strong, fearless woman who was able to tuck my fears away. She was something different; I was something different. But sometimes, I still can see my old self again...my young self. The sun’s light has splashed a brilliant red across the blue sky; the birds are singing and the squirrels are searching through the grass for hickory nuts. And there I am, perched in my private world of trees, a little girl again...for just a little longer.