Our block was distinguished by its sameness. The eight two-story apartment buildings – four on one side of the street, four on the other – were identical except for the paint color, which varied from pale gray to a washed-out beige. The place could have been mistaken for a cardboard movie set…until mid-afternoon when all of us kids came scurrying home from school.
On one particularly warm Wednesday in September, I’d just dropped off my books and changed into my shorts when I saw my best friend coming out of her first floor apartment.
"Hey Sonda," I yelled, "wait up!"
Darting across the street, I hopped onto the sidewalk and caught up to my friend while managing not to step on a crack. Small things mattered.
"Where's the gang?" she asked as our shoulders and steps synchronized.
"I dunno. . . they'll catch up. Let's play Geography," I urged her with an intensity that was hard to ignore. Hesitating, she fiddled with the silver heart necklace around her neck, a gift from her mom, something I wished my mother had given me.
She looked around and frowned, returning full circle to my pleading eyes. "OK," she capitulated.
Excited, I fired the first arrow, "Arizona."
"Argentina," Sonda shot back, holding her head high.
"Azusa," I countered quickly.
"Armenia," I shouted above the passing freight train.
"Geez!" she grumbled and made a face. “Does everything end with an a?"
"Yeah, there are a lot of them," I noted casually.
Sonda knit her brows together and heaved a big sigh. "A... Au... Augusta."
"Austria." I followed fast and furiously.
"I already said that one." Having a good memory was my ace in the hole.
"Albuquerque. How 'bout that? It doesn't even end in a!"
Swell! I know a lot of e's, too. "Europe." I cocked my head, thinking I heard a baby cry, then realized it was probably one of the neighborhood cats.
"England." A look of pleasure stretched across her face as she announced the first final consonant.
"Djakarta." Multi-syllabic names that started with consonants were the best and flowed from my lips like butter. I enunciated each delicious syllable, savoring its goodness up to that last magnificent a and then smiled triumphantly.
Sonda rocked back and forth on her heels while staring intently at the ground. Finally, she looked up and "Alaska" tumbled out of her mouth.
Pausing to consider what life would be like in such a cold, faraway place – so different from sunny Los Angeles – and seconds before I was about to throw my winning play, we heard Gail and Gary, the inseparable siblings from down the block, come up behind us.
"Hey you guys," Gary teased us, "Ya' playing that dumb game again? Forget it, the others are by Doreen's house, ready for hide 'n seek, let's go!" Like tall, thin weeds of non-stop movement, they were the most athletic kids on the block and Gary, being the oldest and the only boy in our group, was our de facto leader.
Annoyed, I went along with the majority while Sonda looked relieved. In addition to the four of us, our gang included Leslie, the six-year-old with perfect blond curls who loved to play with the older kids; Gina, who knew all the telephone poles up and down the block and had the acrobatic skills to scale them, allowing her to jump effortlessly from one garage roof to another; Naomi, who wore makeup and dressed in pedal pushers with short tops that she tied provocatively across her developing bosom, though she was only eleven; and Doreen, the little mother who was charged with watching over her younger brother and sister from the end of the school day until her parents got home from work.
Once we were all assembled, Gary set the game in motion. "OK, Leslie, you're IT,” he commanded.
Obediently, she bowed her head, covered her eyes, and began to count.
I ran and crouched behind a bush. It was prickly. I hated this stupid game. Choosing not to play, I stood up and brushed my arms off just in case I’d snagged some cobwebs or had ants crawling on me. When I looked up, I saw Doreen hiding in the porch entryway across from me. "Hey, Doreen," I waved and barely above a whisper mouthed the words: "You having fun?"
She shook her head no. Then, glancing around, she got to her feet and walked toward me. "I should see what Davy and Sue Ellen are up to. Wanna come over and play Monopoly? We can finish the game my brother and I started yesterday. He was losing."
"Sure," I responded gleefully. We knew no one would miss us. The game never lasted very long after the first one or two of us were found.
Climbing the stairs to Doreen's apartment, I could hear the TV and children's laughter. Although I’d been to her house before, the contrast to my dreary living quarters with its padlocked kitchen made me relish each time more than the last. I would pretend that this was where I lived and that these were my siblings. Playing like a family was the best game of all.
"C'mon in," Doreen motioned to me. Then she hurried down the hall to the bathroom. "I'll be back in a sec." Standing there alone, I spotted a plate full of chocolate chip cookies on the dining room table. With a quick sleight of hand, I grabbed one and wolfed it down.
"Help yourself to a cookie," Doreen offered when she returned. With shaky hands, I tried to appear calm as I reached for another, but knew that my flushed face and burning cheeks told a different story. Fortunately, she was more excited to show me her new picture of Elvis than to take note of my embarrassment. The poster of the rock ‘n roll icon in his glittery white pants suit took up nearly half the bedroom wall. Hung on the opposite wall was a huge Mexican sombrero. There was a cascade of colorful hair ribbons and bows on the dresser, three stuffed animals on the bed, jacks and tinker toys in the corner. Like a happy dog, I lapped it all up. About an hour into our game, Davy came running into the room.
“Darlene, it's for you. I think it's your mom."
Pop! Picking up the receiver in the kitchen, I tried to respond like the dutiful daughter. "Yes, mother, I will. OK." I turned to Doreen and mumbled, "Gotta go, thanks."
The whole block, which just a while before had teemed with children, was empty. It was nearly 6 p.m. I could see lights being turned on and imagined the commotion as families sat down to dinner. No such commotion at our house. I was the only child of a single mom. We didn’t have a set time for meals and often didn’t even eat together. After broiling a piece of meat and serving it to me plain, without bread, sauce or vegetables, she’d go out for a bite by herself.
Sometimes, about every two weeks or so, she took me to grandma’s. Bobbie Katie was an artist in the kitchen. Although her food was yummy, I usually ate it alone while she and my mom were busy screaming at each other. There were also good times when I got to tag along on Mom’s dates with one of her elderly gentleman friends. There, at some fancy restaurant, I could order whatever I wanted and make believe that we were a real family.
Given that neither of those options was on the agenda for the evening, I decided to forgo, or at least delay, dinner in favor of skating.
The quick turnaround that Sonda managed to do flawlessly while I was still floundering was foremost in my mind. Now was the perfect time to do it. Everybody’s gone. The street is mine! I hurried to our garage to retrieve my roller skates. At the top of the block, I sat down on the ground to fasten them onto my shoes. As I rose, I could see myself skating the entire way gracefully and confidently right up to and including a perfect finish to a back skating stop.
Ready, I gained momentum quickly. The rhythmic movement of my feet raced to one side, then the other, faster and faster. Wind pelted my face. My long ponytail swept across my neck. When I was almost at the end, I turned and fell.
Oww! Collapsed onto the concrete like a bug splattered on a windshield, my body was helter-skelter. The gash on my knee was bleeding, one ankle appeared twisted and my left arm was throbbing so violently, I could barely keep my eyes open. Scared and alone with darkness falling, only the thought of my mother raving mad was scarier. “You foolish child!” she'd roar, “Do I have to watch over you every second!” It would be worse if she found me lying here on the sidewalk. But, I couldn't budge. C'mon, Darlene, MOVE! Propping myself up with my uninjured right arm, I rolled onto my side and got to my knees. From there, I detached the skates from my shoes, one of which was already dangling, and managed to stand up.
Still three apartment buildings away from my house, I tried to calculate how many steps that was.
Too late now. Cradling my broken arm like precious cargo, I shakily maneuvered my way step by step up to the landing where, exhausted, I dropped to my knees and crawled the remaining eight stairs to our front door. With my good arm, I reached for the key on a chain around my neck, unlocked it, dragged myself onto the living room floor, pushed the door shut with my foot, and lay there in the dark and cold until my mother opened the back door about a half an hour later.
"Oh my God! Darlene, Darlene, oh my God! What have you done?" she shrieked.
Lifting my head, I stammered, "My arm...my arm...hurts."
I wanted to say that I was trying to be really good at something, something that would make her proud, but I didn't. What would be the point? After what seemed a long time, she put her purse and the bag of groceries on the table, walked over to me and knelt down by my side.
"Show me exactly where it hurts." Her voice was cold and analytical.
"Everywhere, my whole arm."
"OK, here, take my hand," she helped me up. "Let's get you to the hospital."
My arm was diagnosed as a multiple fracture and put into a cast, but that wasn’t the end of it. In the car, on our way home, Mom erupted. "Three days and nights of excruciating labor I suffered to bring you into the world and for what? It's always something with you! Darlene, Darlene, why have you done this to me?" Her voice was deafening. I stared at the lights from the oncoming cars and said nothing.
Soon the shouting stopped. Silence enveloped us. Almost as a lullaby, I began reciting place names: Alexandria, Alberta, Anaheim, Montana, Alabama, Asia, Ajax, Xochimilco! Remembering all those A's and that incredible X would normally have made me smile, but all I could do was cry. Don't let her hear me, I pleaded to some unknown force, fearing that my snivelling would set her off on another tirade. Her resentment, so familiar to me, resounded in my brain. What are YOU crying about? I'M the one who should be crying.
I needn't have worried. She was in another world, mulling over the new men in her life and figuring out how she was going to handle them. Breaking the silence, she started, "Fred wants to take me away for the weekend, but I don't want him thinking he can get something for nothing. Plus, I can't risk losing Bernie, a man with a lot of potential, by not being around when he calls. And, there's the Hungarian I met last week at the singles affair. He's reliable with a good job and he likes children. God knows my chances for marriage aren't much with an eleven-year-old girl in tow! You should thank your lucky stars that you have a mother like me who's looking out for you."
Her juggling boyfriends wasn’t new to me; only the names of the men were different.
She was on a roll. "I think I'll sweet-talk Fred into taking a rain check for our time together, keep Bernie on the line by being available, and see what my dear little Hungarian has to offer. Never forget that men are just good for what they can give you. It's all a game. To win, you have to be smart and play your cards right."
Pulling into the garage, she turned off the engine and looked over to me, "Are you listening to me, Darlene, dumb-dumb? This is important."
Games. Winning. I knew all about them and how good it felt to be a winner – but that wasn’t my whole life. I didn’t want to “win” people. I wanted them to love and appreciate me for who I was. But longing for my mother to love me, I responded sadly, "Yes Ma, I’m listening."
Scattered orange and white feathers clung to the Mexican sage, its branches like outstretched arms holding the detached plumage. Under nearby roses and lavender, they were strewn over dry earth like petals discarded by a flower girl. There were mature tail feathers; there were tiny, downy ones. I detangled each one and regarded its beauty before dropping it into a paper bag. I didn’t want there to be any left to entice the murderous dog back to that spot.
It was only an hour earlier when I found the bird’s mutilated body, still alive, and hidden in the bush along the retention wall in my backyard...